It’s been more than two years since Gophers running back Duane Bennett tore his ACL against Bowling Green, ending the team’s leading rusher and receiver’s 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 team’s 67 carries, including a 32-yard run on the first play from scrimmage , giving the Gophers hope that the running game’s back on track.
Physically, Bennett may have been near 100 percent last season, but he admits he wasn’t mentally.
“I had a lot of mental lapses during the fall of last year. As of right now, we’re just moving forward and really put that behind me,” Bennett said. “Right now I just feel 100 percent ready to go and able to do different things knowing that my knee [is better].”
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.
“I thought Duane had an outstanding spring and there’s nobody more committed to our strength program than [Bennett],” Brewster said. “But you could see throughout the spring and when we got into fall camp, he broke a couple of long runs every day in practice.”
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.
“You always feel confident when a coach gives you that label,” Bennett said. “But at the same time, you still have to go out and perform [whether] he told you you’re going to get ten carries or whether you’re going to get 30 carries.”
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..
“I’ve always been confident handing Duane the ball. He’s one of the hardest working guys on the team and it’s been great watching him rehab and come back,” Weber said. “And I know that he’s very excited with how things are going this year. I think as a team, we’re all happy for Duane because it’s been a rocky road for him and to see him performing like he is…it’s a great thing.”
Bennett’s recovery bodes well for a Gophers offense that’sshifting 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.
“Just the determination he showed on the first run, the opening play against Middle Tennessee…I think that showed a lot about what Duane is going to be about,” Brewster said. “And I anticipate him to continue just like he did the other night; he’s not going to take any backwards steps he’s going to keep pushing forward.”