Gophers football team survives without Darkins at running back

by Jeff Sherry

On Sept. 30, 1995, the Minnesota football team saw what was supposed to be a preview of 1996. With super-senior Chris Darkins injured and out of the Gophers’ game against Arkansas State, the sophomore tandem of Rafael Cooper and Javon Jackson took over at running back.
And they didn’t miss a beat. Cooper and Jackson each ran for more than 100 yards while Minnesota racked up an easy 55-7 win. It appeared the running game could survive in ’96 without Darkins.
Well, three games into the season that forecast has held true. But that doesn’t mean everything has turned out as expected. Minnesota’s formidable rushing duo has comprised of a pair of freshmen — not Cooper and Jackson.
Thomas Hamner and Byron Evans have stepped forward to take over the lead roles in Minnesota’s long-unsettled backfield. The freshmen have combined for more than 80 percent of the team’s ground work. They’ve had an impressive debut, although there’s still plenty to learn.
“I think the guys have handled it well,” Gophers offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse said. “They don’t have anything to fall back on from an experience standpoint, but they haven’t been fazed by the challenge. It’s just a matter of getting more knowledge of the system.”
Hamner has been the premier back thus far, leading the team with 354 yards on 65 carries. Evans, who is more of a power runner, has complemented him with 23 carries for 134 yards. The Gophers have averaged 151 rushing yards per game this season.
Neither player could’ve predicted such extensive action back in spring practice. Although they both performed well in the spring, DeBesse planned to instill a “running back by committee” approach this fall, with Jackson and Cooper getting much of the work.
But a series of incidents, including campus burglary, resulted in Cooper being kicked off the team May 1. Jackson then suffered a slight hamstring tear Aug. 21, the team’s first day of practice in pads. There’s an outside chance Jackson will return against Purdue on Oct. 5. If he’s not ready, coaches are hoping he’ll be back the following weekend at Northwestern.
So for the time being, Hamner will continue to start. DeBesse said Hamner’s work last year helped get him ready for his big step this season.
“He knows what to do back there,” DeBesse said. “Now he needs to learn how to do it, the technique part of it. It will be a continual process for him this year. He’s not going to get to a point where he can say, `Ah ha! I’ve got it!’ There’s a familiarity factor he needs to work out.”
And until that happens, DeBesse said, the team will continue to lack the explosiveness it had last year when Darkins was healthy. None of the current Gophers running backs have the ability to take over a game like Darkins.
It will take a while for the freshmen to completely adjust to the speed of the college game, even though the 6-foot-0, 180-pound Hamner said he already feels comfortable.
“I’m more relaxed than ever,” Hamner said. “This is fun for me, and I couldn’t hope to play with a better bunch of guys. I’ve got a great offensive line to run behind — that’s where all the publicity should go.”
In some ways, the development of the offensive line parallels that of Hamner. Gann Brooks and Chris Bergstrom are the only returning starters from last year, so the unit is also going through the gametime learning process.
DeBesse said he thinks the overall development of the rushing game should improve as the season goes on. Having Jackson healthy and Evans with a better knowledge of the system should improve Minnesota’s running game.
“It will be a learning experience for everyone,” DeBesse said. “We’ll just have to see what happens.”