Sitting down with Donnell Kirkwood

Jace Frederick

I had an opportunity to speak with Gophers starting running back Donnell Kirkwood at Big Ten Football Media Days on two occassions last week in Chicago. Kirkwood talked about the team's offensive improvement, proving the doubters wrong and his goal of reaching 1,000 rushing yards.

Here are my conversations with the junior rusher.

Day one:

Obviously last year, a pretty big stride for the team, going from three wins to making a bowl game. Heading into the third year under Coach Kill, what are the team expectations for you guys and how do you plan to take that next step I guess as a program?

“Win more games. Simple as that.”

Is there a certain goal you have in mind as far as wins?

“Yeah we have some goals that’s within the team and we’re kind of trying to keep them inside the team. But it’s more than six games, I’ll just say that.”

Have you had an opportunity to talk to Moses [Alipate] or Victor [Keise] since the news of them joining the lawsuit against the NCAA came out?

“Yeah I talk to them daily, but I don’t really talk to them about that. That’s their decision. We support them all the way as a team and what they’re trying to do, but I don’t really get in to it that much. I mean I’m not really a fan of it.”

Coach Kill described it as more of a NCAA issue. Do you guys see it as a team issue at all? 

“No. Not at all. As long as they’re at workouts everyday, they’re at practice and at team meetings, if it doesn’t interfere with the team, I don’t find it an issue.”

The facilities plan, $190 million, was unveiled a couple of weeks ago. Can you talk about the practice facility for football, what that could possibly mean for the program moving forward.

“It’s always going to attract people. Facilities, jerseys attract players and people so it probably is going to help with recruiting. I’m just mad I’m not going to be there to see it.”

Can you talk about the drawbacks of the current facility? Obviously there is a lot of talks about how it leaks, is that something that you guys notice?

“I don’t notice. I go there to play football. I don’t notice those things. I try not to let that stuff bother me. Because that bothers me to keep my mind off things that I need to be focused on. I don’t pay attention to the leakage and little things like that.”

There’s been a lot of talk about how the Gophers haven’t had a 1,000 yard running back in awhile. Is that a goal you have set for yourself, reaching that mark?

“It is. But I try to not think about that, because, even when I try not to, it always comes up. I want to get it, because I don’t want to seem like a failure, but my role my not be to get 1,000 yards this year, you never know. If the team’s successful without me getting 1,000 yards, I’m fine with that. I play my part.”

Can you talk a little bit about the growth of the running game since you’ve been with the Gophers? It’s a pretty integral and successful part of your offense.

“Yeah we pride ourselves by not being tackled by one person and not being tackled by the first person, always getting back to the line of scrimmage, always falling forward. That’s just some things we set our goals on in the running back room as a core. We know what it takes. We’re big backs, we’re physical backs, We pride ourselves on not trying to be finesse backs and  not trying to outrun everybody. We’re not the fastest, but we know we will be the most physical backs in the Big Ten.”

Day Two:

The offensive line appears to have more depth this season. Is that something you’re noticing in practice?

“Oh yeah. You kind of just look at them and they’re getting bigger and stronger. We haven’t had any injuries this offseason. It feels good to have all those guys come back.”

How much would it help you next year, if you have all those guys healthy?

“It could help a lot, because we won’t have to drain each guy. We won’t have to drain a player in one game. We got people coming off the bench. One gets tired, one can go in. I feel like that’ll help us.”

There’s been a lot of talk about the defense’s improvement, especially from two years ago to last year, and now coming into this year. What’s that like for you guys on the offensive side of the ball to see them improving and them keeping scores low so maybe you don’t have to score 30 points to win?

“It feels good because you see the other side of the ball kind of just breaking people off and just doing great and it makes you feel like we have to tighten up our offense. It becomes more of a little challenge thing. It’s not on purpose, but it’s more like we can’t just put everything on the defense. Let’s do our part.”

Obviously [Gophers defensive lineman] Ra’Shede Hageman’s been getting a lot of attention this year. What have you seen from him? What’s it like going against him in practice?

“We have our moments. I try to take advantage of when I can chip him. When he’s swinging, I just kind of give him a nudge. But one thing I did see is he’s improved on his work ethic. He works and doesn’t say anything. He’s become a leader because other guys have been complaining and they just see his voice … He’s becoming more vocal and leading by example.”

It’s not a problem for you to take care of him when he comes free off the line, right?

“It’s a problem. He’s a big guy. I get in his way.”

Obviously, on the offense, with a young quarterback, do you consider yourself to be the leader of that offense?

“No. Phil has taken on the role. I did a lot last year, but I feel like I talked a lot. I talked a lot for Phil, I just tried to help him out, but he don’t need it no more. I feel like he’s grown up. He’s more mature to where he is the leader of the offense.”

Can you talk a little bit about [Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson’s] development and how much he’s progressed since the bowl game against Texas Tech and where he is now?

“I feel like his coming out game was Purdue. That’s when he knew ‘I’m supposed to be here playing college football.’ Since then, his confidence just has gained more, and not cockiness at all, but his confidence has gained more in himself … I feel like he did that against Texas Tech, he knew what was going on. And then I look back at it, he was just a freshman. He still has three more years and that’s going to be great to play with him for two.”

He had that good flash against Purdue [15-22, 246 yards, 3 tds], but is that something you expect to see or hope to see on a more consistent basis? 

“Oh yeah. I definitely feel like we’re going to see that out of him a lot. I mean we got [wide receiver] Derrick Engel returning, we’ve got [wide receiver] K.J. Maye, we’ve got [wide receiver] Isaac Fruechte, those are some dangerous guys. People don’t really know how fast they are, because it’s deceiving. Once you get behind Isaac and he gets a step on you, you’re not catching him. Same with Derrick Engel, and K.J. Maye is more powerful than you think, so it’s just like those weapons he has returning, some of the freshman we have coming in, it’s good.”

For the past couple of years, the ground game has definitely been the strength of the offense, kind of the bread and butter. How much is it going to help if you can get that passing game expanded a little bit more? Is that going to open things up for you?

“It’d be much easier. Instead of going from eight in the box, we might go from six to seven. I can work with six or seven.”

Did you get pretty used to going up against eight the last couple of years?

“I was, because certain teams made us throw the ball. Like Nebraska made us throw the ball, Michigan State made us throw the ball. If they can keep making us throw the ball, it makes us become one-dimensional. I feel like we kind of got out of that this year. We’re going to get out of it this year.”

Running back obviously with you, Rodrick [Williams Jr.], there’s a lot of depth there. How much does it help you stay fresh and do you feel it makes you a better runner, having all of that competition?

“I’m going to be honest with you, last year, at the beginning of the season, I found myself kind of tired after games. But when [Williams Jr.] came in, it took some load off. That’s a big guy. That’s a big man to tackle every single time he gets the ball. He knows it. It takes a little bit of pressure off of me. I don’t have to worry about ‘aw man I can’t mess up on any one of the plays.’ I can cut that in half and worry about less than that. And now we have David Cobb and James Gillum both healthy. A lot of people are sleeping on David Cobb. He’s a little freak of nature, to tell you the truth. He’s fast, he’s strong, he looks the part. And he competes. And when he gets his confidence up and rolling, he looks the part and he is the part.”

With Nelson advancing, the receivers emerging as well, you guys have always had the running game there, how big of a jump can this offense make this year?

“A big one. A very big one. We said we’re the underdogs, we like being underdogs. We don’t have a problem with it. We like coming in and people underestimating us and then that first quarter is like ‘oh man, we’ve got to lace up our shoes.’ We like that. I’ve been an underdog all my like and I don’t mind it.”

Three wins two years ago, six wins this last year, but yet still this year picked to finish last in the Legends Division. 

“Good. Fine with me. I don’t pay attention to the newspapers and the rankings. You have some positive reporters that build you up and then you just have some things that ‘oh, they really believe that.’ Some of these people that rank these boards never even played football. They’re not there every day with us. They’re not there when we go out at 5:45 a.m. They don’t really know. We’re fine leaving it at that. We don’t have to tell everybody what we’re doing, and we know that as a team.”

Kind of looking forward to proving those people wrong this year?

“Yeah. We had multiple opportunities last year and we blew it ourselves, because of mental mistakes and errors and stuff like that. We know what we’ve got to do to improve.”

Does having those close games and knowing that you were right there help your confidence heading into this next year?

“Oh yeah, of course. Because when that team is on our schedule, we’re going to know what we did last year and what we need to improve on. We know they’re going to improve on some things, but we’re not worrying about them, we’re worrying about us.”