MINNEAPOLIS Few players went through more during their Gophers football careers than running back Duane Bennett.
Bennett spent five seasons in Minnesota's program. He was recruited by one coaching staff, played for another for most of his career and again saw a coaching change prior to his senior season in 2011. He also missed nearly all of 2008 after receiving a medical redshirt following a knee injury in the second game.Through it all, Bennett became a leader, not only for his fellow running backs but the entire Gophers team. Now, Minnesota will have to find a replacement for Bennett as it searches for a No. 1 running back and someone to fill the leadership void.That might not be so easy to do with a roster full of young running backs. The oldest back, junior James Gillum, is new to the program after transferring from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. The rest are freshmen and sophomores.Spring practices are important for every player on a Gophers team that finished 3-9 the past two years, but it might be especially important for the young running back corps."I think the biggest thing is that a couple of these guys are going to have to grow up from an assignment standpoint and a leadership standpoint," said offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. "Because Duane brought so much to the table as far as that goes, being a veteran being a fifth-year guy, being a guy that had really been through it all. He really provided good leadership, and then those other guys could fill in. I think there's a little bit of a void there as far as that one guy right now that you say, 'Boy, you really can depend on him in crunch time.'"Making things more interesting at the running back position is an injury to Donnell Kirkwood. The sophomore dealt with a hamstring injury during his freshman year in 2011, and it reappeared during the Gophers' first spring practice Thursday. On Friday, head coach Jerry Kill said Kirkwood will be out for most of the spring and will be limited when he does return.After Bennett, Kirkwood had the most production for a running back last season as a redshirt freshman. He gained 229 yards and scored three touchdowns on 63 carries."He's such a good kid and he's worked so hard in the spring. I really feel bad for him," Kill said of Kirkwood. "He's had hamstring troubles since he's been here. The good thing is it's not a knee or something like that."With Kirkwood limited, that'll mean more carries in spring for Gillum and sophomore David Cobb. As a true freshman last year, Cobb had just 10 carries for 57 yards in three games. After rushing for 2,946 yards at Ellison (Tex.) High School, Cobb had to adjust to not being the featured back."Coming in, coming from high school, it's kind of hard to take a back seat and not get that many carries," he said. "Of course you're kind of unhappy; you want to play a little more. But you have to understand that those guys have been doing it. First, to get on the field, you have to know the plays and understand the offense. I was OK with that."Cobb will almost certainly see his workload increase this season now that he has a year under his belt. After looking up to Bennett last season, Cobb will be one member of the platoon that will try to replace his production.When Kirkwood comes back healthy, he'll certainly be counted on, too. "I think those guys both fit in the same boat. They both want to do so well. They're both guys that work very, very hard," Limegrover said. "It's just a matter of knowing the offense. There has to be a comfort level. Both those guys, I think this spring is huge for them. "I think they showed flashes that they could be an every-down back, they could be that guy. Now it's just a matter of, OK, you need to show it over these next 13 practices now and start showing consistency."Gillum comes to Minnesota after two seasons of junior college ball. During his two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast, Gillum ran for a total of 2,339 yards and 25 touchdowns. While he now joins the Big Ten a big step up from the junior college ranks he brings a bit of leadership and maturity that the Gophers lost with the graduation of Bennett."We can pick on him sometimes, call him the old guy," Cobb said. "(He's) 21. We just turned 18. But it's fun."But just like the team's freshmen, Gillum is learning a new offense and adjusting to the new coaching staff. Yet while the spring is just two practices old, Kill has been impressed by what he's seen from Gillum."James is a very mature kid and an awful good football player. He's learning the system right now. He's actually done very well for two days," Kill said. "I always say with a junior college player, you don't judge them until two-a-day camp because right now they're just like a freshman. James has been somewhat like a sponge. He's soaked it all in and has picked things up pretty quick and surprisingly well. That's a compliment to him."Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.