Bennett exceeding expectations of coaches

Luke Middendorf

Not many two-star football recruits get a chance to ever see the field in the Big Ten, let alone get a chance to start during their first year.

But ready or not, Gophers’ true freshman running back Duane Bennett has received that opportunity this season and has surprised just about everyone with his play-making ability and rising potential.

Everyone but himself, that is.

The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Bennett was considered by many recruiting analysts and coaches to be undersized for the major BCS Bowl Conference programs.

Thus, he was tattooed with a two-star ranking by recruiting sites such as Rivals.com and Scout.com, which has become an increasingly important factor in today’s Web-driven college football recruiting.

One program that passed him by was his home-state team Illinois, who he and the Gophers will face in their homecoming game this Saturday.

Bennett said the Fighting Illini did not offer him a scholarship, which in a way is added incentive to show them what they missed out on this Saturday.

“I went there ( to Illinois) for a camp, and two weeks later the coaches sent me a letter saying they were going for an older back,” Bennett said. “Personally, it was kind of like a slap in the face, like they were saying I wasn’t good enough for the Big Ten. But I’m in the Big Ten right now Ö So in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘This is one of the schools that passed me by.’ “

Although not regarded as being in the top-tier of running backs of last years’ recruiting class, Minnesota’s coaching staff, led by former head coach Glen Mason, took a chance on Bennett.

And despite the fact Bennett had committed to the previous coaching staff, he decided to stay on board for new head coach Tim Brewster and the completely new staff that he brought to Minnesota.

From the first time he saw this young freshman on the field during fall camp, Brewster said he knew Bennett was going to quickly surpass his two-star rating.

“You see a kid for the first time – you see him run, you see him do things – I thought that Duane Bennett had a chance to be a special back,” Brewster said.

Brewster also said that seeing Bennett in fall camp immediately brought back memories of another running back that did some great things in his career, ironically wearing the same number as Bennett, No. 22.

“Every great player, to me, reminds you of somebody else,” Brewster said. “When you look at that No. 22 and you look at his running style, who comes to mind?” Brewster asked. “He reminds you of a young Emmitt Smith kind of kid.”

After noticing a silent pause and a few quiet giggles from the room full of reporters on account of his comparison of this freshman back to the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Brewster added: “I’m not trying to be funny at all. I’m being very serious Ö Obviously I’m not trying to categorize him with Emmitt Smith Ö yet. But I just think that he’s the kind of a guy that reminds me of his (Smith’s) style of running.”

Another comparison that has been made of Bennett this season is to former Gophers’ and current New England Patriots’ running back Laurence Maroney.

Aside from Bennett and Maroney wearing the same No. 22 at Minnesota, the main similarity is in their accomplishments on the field early in their college careers.

Bennett’s 106 rushing yards on Saturday against Michigan marked his first career 100-yard game and the first time a Gophers true freshman has rushed for 100 yards since Maroney did it five times in 2003.

Bennett said his 100-yard performance has helped him gain confidence to finish the year strong, even though the Gophers have struggled as a team.

“I just want to go out on a strong note and finish the season well to carry some momentum into the spring,” Bennett said. “I went out and played my heart out for the team, and came out with a 100-yard game. I think everything is going well.”

Bennett has currently racked up 333 yards on 65 carries for the season, an average of nearly five yards (4.9) a carry, and has also been effective in the passing game, catching 12 balls for 127 yards.

Fellow freshman Adam Weber said he also has been impressed with Bennett since fall camp, and that he is looking forward to growing with Bennett in the Gophers new spread offense in the years to come.

“In the summer time – watching what he (Bennett) could do – we knew he was going to be something special,” Weber said. “We have kind of just been waiting for him to have his big game. I think Michigan was a good step for him for the future.”

The thing that Weber said he is most excited about, however, is Bennett’s work ethic.

“I was most impressed about him when we went up to St. John’s for fall camp, he would stay up two hours past everybody else when we were all sleeping, looking at his play book so he could get ready,” Weber said. “That’s the type of stuff that makes you respect a guy, and that’s the type of guy he is.”