Gray finds loads of help in U backfield

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2012 - 8:48 AM

The Gophers know they can take pressure off MarQueis Gray and hammer New Hampshire with their depth at running back.

He made his point a bit inelegantly, perhaps, but New Hampshire defensive end Jimmy Vailas clearly had been studying film of MarQueis Gray and the Gophers offense.

"Throwing is probably his weakness," Vailas told the Concord Monitor this week. "He's not a bad passer, but he's a better runner, so we've got to stop him from running the ball."

Vailas' game plan is a common one among Gophers opponents, considering Gray led them in rushing a year ago. But it's not just the defense that would like to limit Gray's open-field yardage.

Gray wouldn't mind it, either.

Not that he dislikes tucking the ball away and roaring past unsuspecting linebackers. But the senior quarterback said he believes the offense will be more effective if teams learn to fear Minnesota's tailbacks, too. And he expects that to happen soon -- perhaps Saturday when the Gophers open their 2012 home schedule against the Wildcats, ranked No. 12 among FCS schools.

"If we can run the ball, that makes us way more dangerous. When you do that, defenses have to focus on [the line of scrimmage], and that gives everyone more room to work in," Gray said.

"I don't mind handing the ball off. I don't [mind] at all."

It might not be easy against a New Hampshire defense that gave up only 75 yards on the ground last week against Holy Cross. Still, last week's victory over UNLV offered hints that the Gophers' stable of tailbacks is deeper than it has been in a few years.

Sophomore Donnell Kirkwood was particularly effective, gaining 41 yards in the first half and 40 more after halftime, on 13 total carries. Junior-college newcomer James Gillum added 51 yards on 14 carries, and sophomore Devon Wright picked up 7 yards on his lone carry.

True, Gray still led the team in rushes, with 17, and he had the night's longest run, an 18-yarder on the game's third play from scrimmage.

But the quarterback said he is more certain than ever that the Gophers can deliver on their coaches' goal of being a ball-control, keep-it-on-the-ground type of offense.

Kirkwood impressed him with how much he has improved, Gray said.

"He had the coaches raving after the game -- he played a great game, one of his best since he's been here," Gray said. ''What he can do with the ball in his hands is going to be very positive for the team."

His coach thinks so, too. And Jerry Kill admitted this week that he wasn't certain how successful the Gophers would be running the ball.

"That was maybe the surprise for me, how well at running back we played and how physical we were," Kill said of his team's 209 rushing yards, a level the Gophers reached only twice last season. "Other areas, I thought we would be a little farther along. So that was a surprise to me, and I thought Donnell ran very physical and played hard, blocked very well."

And ran in a new direction -- outside. Kirkwood, at 5-10 and 220 pounds, was a basic between-the-tackles back last season, when he gained 229 yards on 63 carries. But he showed a newfound ability to beat linebackers to the edge at Las Vegas.

"I don't know. It's something I've been working on. I've got a little something there," he said of his speed to the outside. "And the receivers were doing a great job of blocking for me out there."

He reciprocated for Gray, which offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said earned Kirkwood the starting role for the moment.

"There's more to it than running. You've got to be able to block. With our quarterback being a mobile quarterback, you've got to be able to block in the run game, got to be able to protect. That's the thing I'm most proud of about Donnell," Limegrover said. "We've got a ton of trust in him now, not because he's running the football but because he's doing a lot of little things to help. He's really stepped up his overall game."

So has Gillum. With far more carries the past two years than any other Gopher, albeit at a junior-college level, the Louisiana native was widely expected to be the No. 1 tailback coming into fall camp. But the demands of the job were heavy.

At UNLV, "James picked it up to what I thought I'd seen back when we recruited him," Kill said. "I think during camp he got run down, but he had a little snap in him and ran well."

Along with Wright, sophomore David Cobb and true freshman speedster K.J. Maye -- whom Kill calls "a special player" -- the Gophers seem to have plenty more options to run the ball than just the quarterback.

So much so that Kill quotes Nick Saban when asked about all the possibilities.

"He said, 'We're not running back by committee,' " Kill said. "We're playing good players."

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