Donnell Kirkwood finished last season as a one-punch back. It was a powerful one, perhaps an uppercut, able to knockout any defender. At 5-foot-10 and tipping the scale at 219 pounds, it was a punch that fit him well. Still he still needed to develop a jab – a finesse attack to compliment the haymaker.
When the redshirt sophomore arrived at camp this summer, he was one of four Minnesota running backs competing for the starting spot. Four games in, Kirkwood emerged as the team’s top back and it’s due to the development of a second punch and it has nothing to do with running.
“For me it’s not being a one-punch fighter. Coming this season, I was trying to knock-you-out blocker,” Kirkwood said. “Now I move my feet and shoot my hands. It’s more of technique things I need to work on and I felt like that I accomplished that in this offseason.”
The Gophers began the 2012 campaign without an established back. Duane Bennett, who gained 659 yards last season, graduated after amassing the 13th most rushing yards in program history. Kirkwood totaled the second most yards on the ground but it was only 243 on 63 carries.
So the spot was up for grabs between redshirt sophomores Kirkwood, James Gillum and Devon Wright. They’d also be fighting for touches with starting quarterback Marqueis Gray, the team's leading ground gainer a year ago with 1,090 yards .
“I felt good about myself when I started blocking better,” Kirkwood said. “I mean we can all run the ball, but the main focus coach (Jerry) Kill and (running backs) coach (Brian) Anderson and (offensive coordinator) coach (Matt) Limegrover wanted the running backs to work on was blocking. I gained all my confidence when I started blocking better.”
It wasn’t that Kirkwood couldn’t block as a first-year player, but he only had one technique. He wouldn’t engage. He wouldn’t extend his arms. And he wouldn’t sustain the block. There was no finesse to protecting the quarterback, just colliding with the defender.
“Blocking isn’t just a three second block. It’s more of a seven second block,” Kirkwood said. “That one shot you throw might get him the first time, but he’s just going to go around you. He’s just going to keep trying to get to the quarterback. At the end of the day that’s not going to block the man.”
This season he is a more polished blocker. He uses his arms to engage the blitzer. Using improve footwork he’s able sustain the block for a longer about of time. As a bonus, the improved blocking technique has also made him a better runner.
“I’m so used to hitting the hole fast and so hard, and I think I tried to do that when I see someone ( I need) to block, I just try to go and knock them out,” Kirkwood said. “That’s what I tried to do when I was running the ball. I think that kind of compromised it. But when I learned how to block, I think I learned to be a little more patient with my running style too.”
So far it’s paid off. In the first game of the season against UNLV James Gillum received 14 carries, but Kirkwood gained the most yards (81) of any back with 81. Gray rushed the ball 17 times for 85 yards.
In the second game, Kirkwood was called upon 17 times, tied with Gray for the most amount of carries. The second closest running back had three.
In the third and fourth games, Kirkwood established himself as the team’s workhorse and needed to with Gray going down with an injured ankle. He carried the ball a combined 51 times for 221 yards.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the gameplan,” Kirkwood said. “I don’t really ask questions. I just keep on rolling with what the coaches want me to do. I hope it means I’m doing something well.”
In all likelihood, it means Kirkwood has developed that second punch to make him an even more versatile back. He now has a jab to compliment that powerful uppercut. But even now, Kirkwood isn’t satisfied.“I still need to improve upon blocking more than anything,” Kirkwood said. “I’m not perfect yet.”