The Texas Bowl was supposed to launch a family celebration for Gophers running back David Cobb last December.
More than 30 friends and family members from Texas and Mississippi had turned out at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, ready to see him cap a breakout junior season.
Cobb figured he and his cousin, Damien Wilson, a Gophers middle linebacker, would enjoy a festive drive to Mississippi after the game — as long as Minnesota won. But the favored Gophers lost to Syracuse 21-17, and Cobb said it turned into a long, quiet ride back to where the players grew up.
“We drove my mom’s car,” Cobb said. “It was just me and him, so we didn’t say too much.”
Cobb, in particular, felt like he had let the Gophers down. He had used a late-season surge to become their first 1,200-yard rusher in eight years, but after the season he was left to replay his bowl-game lowlights in his mind.
“I was trying to do a little bit too much,” Cobb said of his quiet, 91-yard performance. “The O-line was opening up holes, and I was just rushing myself, stuff I hadn’t done all season, bouncing outside and not staying between those tackles.”
He still shakes his head at the memory.
“It definitely plays a motivational role,” Cobb said last week. “I hate to say it, but maybe it’s something I definitely needed.”
Cobb knows he can’t be complacent. He waited so long for his opportunity, sitting mostly idle his first two years with the Gophers, getting 10 rushing attempts as a freshman and one as a sophomore. Those were humbling seasons for Cobb after he had rushed for nearly 3,000 yards at Ellison High School in Killeen, Texas.
Now a senior, Cobb also knows the Gophers running back depth is such that if his production sags, he could land back on the bench.
Fellow senior Donnell Kirkwood battled injuries last year but led the team with 926 rushing yards in 2012. Junior Rodrick Williams started six games ahead of Cobb last year. And then there’s redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, whose speed and shiftiness could make him quite a threat.
“I think competition makes everybody better,” coach Jerry Kill said. “David is an awful good football player and had a great season for us and has worked very hard in the offseason. But when you have some of the kids that he’s got in that backfield, you have no time to rest.”
The 5-11 Cobb played at about 229 pounds this spring but said he shed about 10 pounds for camp to gain a little speed.
“The crazy thing about last year is he got 1,200 yards, and he didn’t start until the Northwestern game,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “That’s halfway through your season. That’s why I’m excited for him this year, just to see the confidence and the swagger he has going into this season.”
Last week, at Big Ten Media Days, Cobb said the Gophers think they can go 12-0 this year. When probed about the Wisconsin rivalry, he smiled and thought to last year, when the Badgers won but the Gophers prevented them from chopping down the goalpost near the student section at TCF Bank Stadium.
“That doesn’t sit well with us,” Cobb said. “So this year, I definitely have that game circled and once we win, we’ll go over there and we will chop down their goalposts.”
But behind that bravado, Cobb knows there is a lot he can improve. After posting 174 receiving yards last year, he wants to become a better receiver and blocker for Leidner.
“And finishing runs,” Cobb said, listing his goals. “Turning those 15-yard runs into 40, 50-yard runs.”
Over the New Year’s holiday with his family, Cobb couldn’t hide his disappointment from the bowl game. Syracuse didn’t allow a 100-yard rushing performance all season, and Cobb knew the Gophers would have been better positioned had he performed as he did against Nebraska (138 yards) and Penn State (139 yards).
“After that [Syracuse] loss, I could tell it took him a long time to get over it,” said Cobb’s father, Caesar. “And I don’t think he will get over it until he gets back onto the field.”
The Gophers open a new season Aug. 28 against Eastern Illinois. Two weeks later, Minnesota plays at Texas Christian, and Cobb’s fan club will be waiting for him again. He is determined to make that a sweeter homecoming.