Daniels stars in debut as running back

Tyler Rushmeyer

Minnesota’s rushing game has been historic in its efficiency in recent years, but heading into Thursday’s contest against Kent State, there were many questions regarding the recently depleted backfield.

With Laurence Maroney suiting up for the Patriots, Gary Russell academically ineligible, and Brylee Callender taking handoffs in Nevada, Mason stated earlier in the week that the running back position would be filled by a committee of backs.

Many believed junior Amir Pinnix, the Gophers leading returning rusher, would be the featured back. But Thursday’s game saw converted linebacker Alex Daniels take the most prominent role in the ground attack.

Daniels rushed for 155 yards on 24 attempts and touchdowns, leading the Gophers to a 44-0 victory.

“He’s a big kid who can move,” junior center Tony Brinkhaus said. “He was kind of our secret during our two-a-days. I had an idea this might happen.”

Daniels, a true sophomore, converted from linebacker to tailback during fall practice after Mason continued to see his backfield depth decrease. Considered by some to be one of the best overall athletes on the team, Daniels used his athletic ability and size to wear down the Kent State defense.

“Let’s face it, he’s 265 pounds. It becomes awful tough to keep tackling him,” Mason said. “You might get him down, but you’re paying a price to get him down.”

The final offensive stat line was typical of the run-heavy game plan that has typified Minnesota’s offense in recent years; 55 rushing attempts for 322 yards. The passing game again took a backseat to the rushing attack, with eight completions on 15 attempts.

“If we could run it 55 times and pass it 55 times and get 44 points, then that’s great. But that’s just not realistic,” Mason said. “I’m an old defensive coach and there is nothing better than when that offense is grinding that ball out. The defense plays pretty good when they’re standing on the sidelines next to me.”

E.J. Jones, a true freshman, got the nod on the Gophers’ first possession and took three handoffs for 8 yards before leaving the game with an ankle injury. Mason stated that Jones’ injury did not mean more playing time for the other backs, and that all would have seen action regardless.

“We’re an equal-opportunity employer. So if a guy has a good practice. How do you reward him? You let him go,” Mason said, “I think E.J. has really looked good coming down the wire (in fall practice).”

Daniels entered the game next and took the bulk of the carries for the remainder of the contest. Pinnix had a strong second-half performance and finished with 15 carries for 114.

Junior Justin Valentine and freshman Terrence Sherrer combined for another 22 yards on nine attempts. The Gophers rushed for five touchdowns for the first time since last season’s game against Indiana.

Coming into the game, Pinnix was listed as the No. 1 back, with Jones and Daniels following, but the depth chart may be shaken up before heading to California.

“I didn’t even know if I was even going to play,” Daniels said. “I mean we have freshman sensation Jones and Amir, so I’m third string. But I just took the opportunity and showed off my talent.”

Daniels – the first Minnesota player to score an offensive and defensive touchdown in his career since Jermaine Mays in 2002 – adjusted well to playing on the other side of the ball.

“They played us tough, but we just broke their backs a couple of times,” Daniels said. “The defense can only take so much. I’m from the defensive side of the ball, so I know.”

Daniels capped scoring drives of 54 and 77 yards with rushing touchdowns, but perhaps most impressive was his stamina in orchestrating a solo seven-play, 56-yard scoring drive, which he capped off with a 1-yard touchdown run to begin the third quarter.

“(Mason) just said ‘We’re going to run you from the get-go,’ ” Daniels said. “I was a little tired towards the end of that one, but I just sucked it up and took the challenge of finishing.”