Renewed Bennett finding stride

The running game has struggled since Bennett tore his ACL in September 2008, but the junior looks renewed after a career-best in the season opener.

John Hageman

ItâÄôs been more than two years since Gophers running back Duane Bennett tore his ACL against Bowling Green, ending the teamâÄôs leading rusher and receiverâÄôs season just after it began. The Gophers have struggled mightily running the ball in the 24 games since, averaging just over 90 yards per game on the ground. Bennett averaged just 3.8 yards a carry last season while recovering from injury and platooning carries with junior DeLeon Eskridg e and freshman Kevin Whaley. But in the Gophers season opener against Middle Tennessee State on Thursday, Bennett seemed renewed, rushing for a career-high 187 yards on 30 of the teamâÄôs 67 carries, including a 32-yard run on the first play from scrimmage , giving the Gophers hope that the running gameâÄôs back on track. Physically, Bennett may have been near 100 percent last season, but he admits he wasnâÄôt mentally. âÄúI had a lot of mental lapses during the fall of last year. As of right now, weâÄôre just moving forward and really put that behind me,âÄù Bennett said. âÄúRight now I just feel 100 percent ready to go and able to do different things knowing that my knee [is better].âÄù Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster said he could tell Bennett was on his way back during spring practices, thanks to the work he has put in with the strength coaches. âÄúI thought Duane had an outstanding spring and thereâÄôs nobody more committed to our strength program than [Bennett],âÄù Brewster said. âÄúBut you could see throughout the spring and when we got into fall camp, he broke a couple of long runs every day in practice.âÄù The Gophers ran for 281 yards Thursday, with freshman Donnell Kirkwood and Eskridge combining for 88 yards on 23 carries. Although Kirkwood looked impressive for stretches, Brewster said he intended for Bennett to get the majority of the carries, which gave the junior some added confidence. âÄúYou always feel confident when a coach gives you that label,âÄù Bennett said. âÄúBut at the same time, you still have to go out and perform [whether] he told you youâÄôre going to get ten carries or whether youâÄôre going to get 30 carries.âÄù While Bennett has gained some confidence from being healthy, senior quarterback Adam Webe r had no problem handing Bennett the balllast season despite his struggles.. âÄúIâÄôve always been confident handing Duane the ball. HeâÄôs one of the hardest working guys on the team and itâÄôs been great watching him rehab and come back,âÄù Weber said. âÄúAnd I know that heâÄôs very excited with how things are going this year. I think as a team, weâÄôre all happy for Duane because itâÄôs been a rocky road for him and to see him performing like he isâĦitâÄôs a great thing.âÄù BennettâÄôs recovery bodes well for a Gophers offense thatâÄôsshifting its identity to a power running team, and may help open up the passing game for Weber with more opportunities for a play-action pass. Brewster said he plans to balance the offensive play calling in the future, but rushing will remain a major part of the offensive game plan this season. And if the Gophers are as successful in running the ball as they were in the opener, expect Bennett to be pivotal in their success. âÄúJust the determination he showed on the first run, the opening play against Middle TennesseeâĦI think that showed a lot about what Duane is going to be about,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúAnd I anticipate him to continue just like he did the other night; heâÄôs not going to take any backwards steps heâÄôs going to keep pushing forward.âÄù