Hamner leads U

by Murali Balaji

With a shaky quarterback situation, the Minnesota corps of running backs will be under the gun to produce much more this season than they have through the first four games. This weekend’s matchup against the Lions, who rank third in the Big Ten in run defense, will provide a gauge of the Gophers’ overall capabilities in their offensive backfield.

Thomas HamnerJunior running back6-0, 185 lbs.
Hamner is currently the Gophers’ leading rusher, with 368 yards on 90 carries (4.1 average) and two touchdowns. As a redshirt freshman in 1996, Hamner turned a lot of heads in the Big Ten, rushing for 883 yards and three touchdowns. As a sophomore, however, he struggled to find his groove and rushed for only 663 yards (3.9 average). Hamner is somewhat of an enigma. When healthy and motivated, he is one of the better backs in the conference, a runner who can utilize his outside speed and vision to make big plays. He is also a decent receiver out of the backfield, with the ability to accelerate in the open field after the catch. But consistency has been a problem for Hamner throughout his career, as he has often followed up big games with mediocre performances. It seems as if he has yet to put all of his physical tools together. Hamner is a gifted athlete, and his perseverance has paid off with his ability to stave off competition in the past two years. However, the Gophers need him to come through in the next couple of weeks in order to overcome a very shaky quarterback situation.

Arland BruceJunior running back5-10, 190 lbs.
Bruce, a transfer from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, has rushed for only 12 yards in limited action and is averaging a meager 2.2 yards per carry. During camp, Bruce impressed coaches with his ability to hit the holes quickly and change his speed in traffic. So far, the team has not given Bruce a chance to display those talents. His lack of size makes him more of a scat-back, a runner who dodges in and out of a crowded field and uses his speed to get outside. Bruce is also deceptively strong; once he gets a full head of steam, he has the capability of plowing through would-be tacklers. A major concern is his durability — can Bruce be the main runner in an offense and survive the beating of an 11-week schedule? If the answer is yes, expect him to play a more prominent role in the offense as the season progresses. If Hamner falters, Bruce is the likely choice to take the bulk of the carries in the backfield.

Byron EvansJunior running back5-9, 210 lbs.
Evans is third on the team in rushing (98 yards), but leads the team in average (19.6) after scoring on a 93-yard jaunt against Memphis on Sept. 19. During the past two seasons, Evans has seen action as a situational runner, a change-of-pace option for Hamner. However, he has seen less playing time with the arrival of Bruce and the increased frequency of the passing attack in recent games. Evans is a utility back, a nice complimentary player in the backfield who gives the Gophers someone to look to when Hamner is hurt or struggling. He is a low-to-the-ground runner with decent vision and above average speed. Evans may be one of the team’s better cutback runners, but he is more effective when he has good lead blocking, which the Gophers’ line has failed to provide. The Gophers occasionally put Evans in their spread offense packages, when he is the lone back in a three or four-receiver set. He is a better blocker than Bruce or Hamner, but his lack of blazing speed hinders his qualifications as a third-down specialist. Look for Evans to see action against quick rush teams, as his ability to get to the holes will work to the Gophers’ benefit.
Others in the mix: Jim Bean, senior running back (5-9, 200 lbs.); Brad Prigge, junior fullback (5-10, 190 lbs.).
Editor’s note: This is the second in a weekly series focusing on various Gophers positions. Next week, a look at the offensive line.