RBs still fighting for starting job

Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge received most of the carries during Saturday’s Spring Game.

Junior Deleon Eskridge during a scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium in April. Eskridge finished with 12 carries for 40 yards Thursday night against Middle Tennessee State.

Joe Michaud-Scorza

Junior Deleon Eskridge during a scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium in April. Eskridge finished with 12 carries for 40 yards Thursday night against Middle Tennessee State.

by Marco LaNave

Gophers football coach Tim Brewster wants to see more from his running backs. While he hopes for more production from the Big TenâÄôs worst rushing offense the last two seasons, Brewster is also anticipating further competition at running back before the season begins this fall. In contrast to naming a starting quarterback soon, Brewster gave no indication after SaturdayâÄôs spring game that he expects to name a starting running back before practice resumes later this summer. âÄúI wouldnâÄôt consider anyone [a starter]. Heck, weâÄôre competing,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúTheyâÄôve improved this spring âĦ [and] taken a step up, and competition forces you to do that.âÄù Three running backs split the bulk of the carries last fall, and three shared the touches on Saturday also. Juniors-to-be DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett, the teamâÄôs leading rushers in 2008 and 2009, respectively, each had at least seven carries and 45 yards in the first half. Each flashed explosiveness, with Eskridge tallying three separate 11-yard gains and Bennett reeling off a 33-yard run. âÄúYou could see a big change from even fall into spring. I think all of us are playing more physical,âÄù said Eskridge, who scored a touchdown on the gameâÄôs first drive and finished with 51 yards on 12 carries. âÄúHopefully we can come [back this fall] and be more consistent and have better runs.âÄù Last yearâÄôs second-leading rusher, Kevin Whaley, was released a week after the 2009 Insight Bowl, so senior-to-be R.J. Buckner, who has not had a carry in six career games, rushed the ball 13 times âÄî including the last 11 by the running backs âÄî for 49 yards Saturday. âÄú[The competition] helps raise up my level of play because my goal is definitely to play after college football,âÄù said Buckner, who added that his goal is to contribute on special teams next season, but he still hopes to be the starting running back at some point. But for Buckner, Eskridge and Bennett, the field of competition will only grow, as the Gophers have signed three recruits to join the battle for backfield labor. Local four-star recruit Lamonte Edwards (Woodbury) and three-star running backs Donnell Kirkwood (Delray Beach, Fla.) and Devon Wright (Coral Springs, Fla.) will enter the competition before the season begins next fall. âÄúWeâÄôll have an extremely competitive situation at running back, and I think itâÄôs all very positive,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúThereâÄôs three more young running backs that are going to come in and have an opportunity to show what they can do.âÄù For Eskridge and Bennett, who have been in the mix for the starting spot since the beginning of last season, a competition with freshmen and potential uncertainty entering the season doesnâÄôt seem that extraordinary. âÄúThis is no [special] preparation for us for when the freshmen come in. WeâÄôre going to compete regardless if they were here or not,âÄù said Bennett, who carried nine times for a team-leading 55 yards. âÄúWhen they come here, itâÄôs still going to be the same âĦ WeâÄôre still going to go to work every day.âÄù The running back competition will fall under its third offensive coordinator in as many seasons. Brewster said the offense has retained continuity since the departure of Jedd Fisch, the promotion of Thomas Hammock (the running backs coach since 2007) to co-offensive coordinator and the addition of former Detroit Lions quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton as co-coordinator. âÄúI thought at times we looked OK; at times we bogged down,âÄù Horton said. Bennett said itâÄôs been a good transition under Horton this spring. âÄúHeâÄôs really patient with us, and heâÄôs really trying to establish a run game,âÄù Bennett said.