Running back position still up for grabs

Freshman DeLeon Eskridge runs the ball last weekend against Montana State. Eskridge, Shady Salamon and Jay Thomas are competing for the starting running back position after the Gophers lost Duane Bennett for the season to injury.

Steve Maturen

Freshman DeLeon Eskridge runs the ball last weekend against Montana State. Eskridge, Shady Salamon and Jay Thomas are competing for the starting running back position after the Gophers lost Duane Bennett for the season to injury.

On a hot day in Fort Lauderdale last year, the Gophers lost to Florida Atlantic and started a 10-game losing streak that would close out the year. DeLeon Eskridge wasnâÄôt there for that game. Neither was Shady Salamon. But both will play big roles Saturday when the Owls come to the Metrodome. Eskridge and Salamon, both true freshmen, will compete for the starting tailback position that Duane Bennett left open after suffering a season-ending knee injury Sept. 6. âÄúObviously, youâÄôd like to have a guy picked out as your starting tailback today or tomorrow, but I donâÄôt think thatâÄôll be the process,âÄù head coach Tim Brewster said. âÄúI think weâÄôll probably see a couple of guys playing at the position and weâÄôll probably ride the guy whoâÄôs got the hot hand.âÄù Eskridge was the âÄúhot handâÄù last week against Montana State, rushing for 114 yards on 24 carries. Brewster had said he would give his three top backs âÄî Eskridge, Salamon and junior Jay Thomas âÄî a chance to win the job in that game, the teamâÄôs first since losing Bennett. But Salamon, despite starting the game, had just three carries. Thomas had zero. âÄúItâÄôs not anybodyâÄôs position,âÄù Eskridge said. âÄúAt any time, somebody can come and take over, because weâÄôre all young. At any time, if you donâÄôt perform, somebody can step in and take the position.âÄù Senior linebacker Deon Hightower described Eskridge as âÄúmore of a quick, shifty guy,âÄù and Salamon as âÄúmore of a hard-nosed runner.âÄù On Saturday, however, Eskridge was given the ball in short yardage situations, scoring all three of his touchdowns from inside the 5-yard line . âÄúWhen it comes down to it, I love to get the ball when we need to get the yards,âÄù Eskridge said. âÄúWhen we have third-and-one, or any kind of short yardage, we have to get it. So for them to count on me to get it, IâÄôm happy about that. But coach [Brewster] wants us to be all-around backs.âÄù Until now, neither Eskridge nor any other back has been as âÄúall-aroundâÄù as Bennett, who was second on the team in receiving when he was injured. Without a receiving threat out of the backfield against Montana State, the passing game was limited in options. Senior Eric Decker had 157 of the teamâÄôs 201 receiving yards, and the running backs had just one reception between them âÄî a 13-yarder to Salamon. âÄúThere are other things to do besides just carrying the football,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúThose are the things that weâÄôll look at to determine who the starter will be; as much without the ball as with the ball.âÄù Adding to the challenge of the rushing game is an offensive line that, because of injuries to Ned Tavale and Jeff Tow-Arnett, will likely start at least three true freshmen. Sophomore left tackle Dom Alford is also questionable after spraining his ankle Saturday. âÄúTheyâÄôre young, but we trust them up there,âÄù quarterback Adam Weber said. Brewster said he would like to have a clear starting back in time for the Big Ten opener Sept. 27 at Ohio State, which leaves just this weekend. âÄúWe all know whatâÄôs at stake,âÄù Eskridge said. âÄúWe know what weâÄôre competing for. In the game weâÄôre competing, in practice weâÄôre competing and when weâÄôre watching film weâÄôre competing. I think it makes everybody better.âÄù