In a prism, James Gillum might not seem like the ideal Big Ten running back. He transferred from a junior college. He is soft-spoken to the media. And he's not the biggest or the fastest back on the field.
But the Louisiana native might be the favorite to gain the Gophers starting job this season because, appearances aside, Gillum has proved he simply has a knack for playing football.
During Wednesday's practice, Gillum took the ball and ran straight into a wall of defenders -- and then rolled right and snuck through a gap to gain an extra 5 yards as his teammates yelled their support on the sideline. Gillum's efficient combination of power and elusiveness is something they and the coaches are getting accustomed to seeing. After all, he's been perhaps the most consistent running back in practice this year, a testament to his ability to remain even-keeled despite outside influences.
"He's very physically and mentally tough," coach Jerry Kill said, using an adjective -- "tough" -- that is commonly used to describe Gillum, who is listed at 5-11. "His feet always keep churning and he's bigger than you think -- he's 210, 215 and he's a very strong 210, 215."
In the spring, when Gillum arrived on campus, it seemed like he would be the sure choice for the job vacated when Duane Bennett graduated last year, but in the August practices, the competition has gotten a little more interesting.
Sophomore David Cobb and redshirt sophomores Donnell Kirkwood and Devon Wright have shown significant improvement, while freshman K.J. Maye has demonstrated what he can do with his speed, making the running back battle one of the more intriguing ones at camp.
Gillum might still hold the upper hand, but it's partly from his talent and drive that the rest of the crew finds motivation to improve -- which is about as vain as Gillum gets.
"It's pushing us," he said, turning conversation back to the pack. "It's making all of us better at the same time."
Gillum pushes in his own way, adapting a louder, more aggressive personality on the field that media members don't get to see, Kirkwood said.
"Quiet to y'all, maybe -- he isn't that quiet to us," Kirkwood said with a chuckle. "He'll get on me, he'll get on Cobb, he'll get on Devon just as well as I get on anyone.
"He shows us that he is the oldest and he probably is -- I'll have to say -- the most mature in some of the ways, but he kind of rubs off on all of us. When he gets serious, we'll kind of get serious."
And serious is how Gillum treats football. Out of Louisiana's Pearl River High School, Gillum realized his grades weren't good enough to get into a Division I school. But instead of putting his head down, Gillum enrolled at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, a school known for its running back development, where he took his game to a higher level, added 20 pounds in the weight room and picked up his grades. In his last year there, he played on an ankle sprain for most of the season but still racked up 1,042 yards.
When he was recruited by Minnesota, he jumped at the chance, knowing there would be an opportunity for him to play right away. Here, again, he's established his toughness not just physically but mentally.
"He can take things other players can't," Kirkwood said. "Coach would get on one of the other players and then get on him. And the difference between them, you can tell how he took it versus how another player took it. He's very mentally tough."
For Gillum, it's just a part of getting to where he wants to be.
"It's not like you just walk in and [have a starting job] handed to you," he said. "You've got to go compete. It's just a great atmosphere, it's just a great place to play ball. You've got great coaches who love the game and who know a lot about the game. They've got a great plan for the program, and I just felt like this was a great fit for me."
Even with the season opener at UNLV less than three weeks away, Kill and the rest of the staff are still unsure how the plan at running back will evolve this year. But with the group excelling all around, the situation is favorable.
"All these guys have picked up their game," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "We love James' demeanor, love the way he worked through spring, but I think it was an eye-opener for those other guys. ... It could very well be James, but it's not coachspeak. Those guys are, almost by the rep, in a great competition with each other. And they know that and are putting their best foot forward."
For Gillum -- healthy or banged up, the favorite or not -- either foot will work.