Hartman: Gophers have more, better running backs

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2012 - 7:25 AM

Not having enough healthy backs limited the U offense a year ago; now there's competition for playing time.

A year ago the Gophers football team had only four running backs on scholarship and injuries to two of them, David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood, limited their performance.

This year it is a different story, with terrific competition among the running backs, and the bulk of them have great speed.

Another good sign for development is that the Gophers have only 10 seniors on their roster and none of them is a running back. And to make the offense of the future look even more competitive, the current first-team offensive line doesn't have a senior, either.

Right now it appears that James Gillum, a junior college transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College, is the No. 1 back.

Gillum was a tremendous talent in high school at Pearl River High in Louisiana. He was named to the all-state team as a senior after he rushed for 1,787 yards. As a sophomore, he led the state with 2,213 yards and 24 touchdowns. But Gillum's grades weren't good enough, so he enrolled at Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he was the 12th-leading junior college rusher as a sophomore and eighth as a freshman.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune quoted Gillum before last season as saying, "I have all the confidence in the world that I can play at the highest level in college and in the NFL, too. But the most important thing to me is going somewhere where I have a chance to start right off the bat."

That's something the Gophers could offer Gillum.

His offensive coordinator at Gulf Coast, Pete Bennett, said Gillum had the ability to be an Southeastern Conference running back -- something the Gulf Coast coaching staff would know. They coached Vick Ballard before he transferred to Mississippi State, where he rushed for 2,158 yards and 30 touchdowns in two years. Ballard is now with the Indianapolis Colts.

Others to watch

Head coach Jerry Kill believes another back who could surprise is redshirt sophomore Devon Wright, who has tremendous speed. The Coral Springs, Fla., native has run a time of 10.6 seconds in the 100 meters. A year ago, he carried the ball only one time, in a game against Michigan.

Others who could compete and see some action are Rodrick Williams, a 235-pound freshman tailback from Lewisville, Texas; Cole Banham, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Minnesota State Mankato and freshman K.J. Maye from Mobile, Ala., who can play either receiver or tailback.

Cobb, a sophomore running back from Killeen, Texas, showed good talent last year when he was healthy, but he played briefly in only three games.

Kill added he would like to get into a position where the Gophers can use some two-back alignments.

"When you only have four scholarship tailbacks a year ago, you really can't do that," Kill said. "We had injuries all the time. But I'm hoping to use a couple of those guys at the same time in what we do."

High on Smith

New Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams was asked his appraisal of first-round draft choice Harrison Smith, the former Notre Dame safety.

"Right now he is better at everything than I really thought." Williams said. "He is a real tall guy [6-2] and usually tall guys are a little bit leggy and might not be quick-footed, but right now he has excelled at the pass coverage. We put him on tight ends and he has been extremely effective. We will wait to see how he does against the running game."

Jottings

• When Justin Morneau hit his 200th home run Monday night in Cleveland, it made the Twins first baseman the fourth Canadian big-league ballplayer to reach the mark. The others are Larry Walker (383 homers from 1989 to 2005), Matt Stairs (265 from 1992 to 2011) and Jason Bay (208 from 2003 to current). Like Morneau, Walker and Bay are from British Columbia; Stairs is from New Brunswick. Reds slugger Joey Votto, a Toronto native, has 133 career homers.

Pat Neshek is back in the big leagues after Oakland purchased the former Twins reliever from Baltimore and put him on the Athletics' 25-man roster. The Park Center High School product had 11 saves and a 2.66 ERA in 35 games for Class AAA Norfolk before landing with the A's, and in his first three big-league games this year he struck out five with no hits and one walk in 3 1/3 innings. ... Former Twins reliever Matt Guerrier, who hasn't pitched for the Dodgers since April 18 because of elbow trouble, is reportedly set to report to Glendale, Ariz., on Friday for a rehab assignment.

• Former Twins lefthander Jose Mijares left the AL Central when Kansas City let San Francisco claim him Monday. Mijares had good numbers with the Royals, going 2-2 with a 2.56 ERA in 51 games, one of the highest totals for relief appearances in the league.

• Twins minor leaguer Chris Parmelee was named the International League's hitter of the week after batting .517 (15-for-29) with three doubles, five homers, and nine RBI i six games.

• Here's an update on the two prospects the Twins received in the Francisco Liriano trade: Eduardo Escobar hit his first homer as a member of the Twins' system on Sunday and is hitting .220 with three RBI in eight games at Class AAA Rochester. Lefthander Pedro Hernandez made his debut for Rochester on Monday night and got shelled. He allowed six earned runs on 10 hits in two innings in a 9-2 loss.

• A host of Minnesotans are on the roster of 2012 USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp, coached by former South St. Paul and NHL standout Phil Housley and Gophers assistant Grant Potulny. They are Mike Reilly (Chanhassen) and Brady Skjei (Lakeville), both defensemen and Gophers recruits; Gophers winger Travis Boyd (Hopkins); Edina winger Steve Fogarty and Mario Lucia (Plymouth), son of Gophers coach Don Lucia. ... As of Monday night, Mario Lucia had three goals and Mike Reilly had one goal and one assist in three games in the camp.

• When the Timberwolves drafted Brandon Roy in the first round of the 2006 draft and then traded him for Randy Foye, there was speculation that the Wolves were paid $1 million to make the trade. Owner Glen Taylor denies that and claims there was concern about Roy's knees at the time and the trade was made for that reason. Now Roy, after retiring for a year because of knee problems, is with the Wolves again.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com

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