MINNEAPOLIS If Gophers football coach Jerry Kill had his way, he would never put a true freshman on the field.
Kill, in his first year as the University of Minnesota coach, estimated that he played seven true freshman last year while coaching at Northern Illinois the most he's ever used. But with a lack of depth on the Gophers' roster, Kill has had to turn to plenty of true freshman just five games into the season.
"I don't have a choice right now. We don't have any depth," Kill said. "If we can save a redshirt on a kid, we can certainly try. But right now, we're not in a situation to do that."
Of the Gophers that have seen time as true freshmen this year, perhaps the best-known case is quarterback Max Shortell. He's spelled starter MarQueis Gray in several games, and got the start against Michigan last Saturday.
Joining him on offense have been true freshmen David Cobb and Devin Crawford-Tufts, both of whom gave up their redshirts to help Minnesota's offense. Both saw their first college action two games ago against North Dakota State, and each saw his role increase against the Wolverines last Saturday.
Cobb, a 5-foot-11, 212-pound running back from Killeen, Texas, had his first career carry a three-yard gain in the fourth quarter against NDSU. The following week, Cobb led the Gophers with 54 rushing yards on eight carries at Michigan. His workload increased due in part to an injury to running back Donnell Kirkwood. Regardless, Cobb made the most of his opportunity.
"I'm glad that Coach decided to let me play a little bit and get my feet wet. I appreciate that," Cobb said. "It's a great opportunity the coach has given me. I've been working hard in practice, so it's like if he trusts you, he'll put you on the field."
Cobb was impressive in the Gophers' fall camp, including the team's scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium. But he waited four games before getting his first carry for Minnesota.
Now, he'll have a chance to be mixed into Minnesota's rotation of running backs along with Kirkwood and senior Duane Bennett.
"David seems to be a hard kid to tackle. He's done some good things all through the spring," Kill said. "I look for all three of them to have an opportunity, but again, you've got to have drives and you've got to have the ball more than 50 times and you've got to stay on the field to get those carries."
Cobb was ranked as the 60th-best running back in the nation by ESPNScouts Inc. after his senior season at Ellison High School. Entering his freshman year at Minnesota, Cobb said he didn't necessarily have expectations on whether he'd play or redshirt.
"Coming in, I had the mindset that I wanted to play," he said. "Really, I was going to do anything the coach needed me to do, whether it was redshirt or play whatever he needed."
That was the same attitude Crawford-Tufts took into the season. A 6-foot-2, 191-pound wide receiver, Crawford-Tufts was a standout athlete at Edina (Minn.) High School, as he was also a state track champion in the 100 and 200 meter dashes.
He's now played in two games as well, but Crawford-Tufts said he'll do whatever the coaches need him to do.
"The coaches told me that I needed to work hard, that I had an opportunity to play because of the situation with the receivers and everything," he said. "I had no idea that I would actually get playing time this year. I thought I was going to redshirt. They never told me that I was or wasn't. They just told me to keep working hard."
That hard work paid off Saturday, as Crawford-Tufts made his first two catches of his college career and they came on back-to-back plays.
The first was a two-yard screen pass from Shortell on 1st-and-10. On second down, Crawford-Tufts went across the middle for a 13-yard catch but he paid the price as he took a hard hit from Michigan safety Carvin Johnson. The hit knocked the wind out of Crawford-Tufts, but he hung on to the ball for a Gophers first down.
"I was trying to see if I could still move. I just couldn't breathe," Crawford-Tufts said. "I just went over and caught my breath and got back in."
"He got hit pretty good and caught the ball, got stung a little bit," Kill said. "I think again, as a freshman coming in, it doesn't matter if you're playing in the third quarter or whatever it is, you're playing in the Big House. He made two catches."
The Gophers may have sputtered to a 1-4 start to the season following Saturday's 58-0 loss to Michigan. But as the team grows together, so too will Minnesota's freshmen.
"We've got some kids that are doing some good things. It's just when you have penalties and you play very poorly and very badly, it's hard to go look and find the positives," Kill said. "You've just got to search it sometimes. When things are really, really bad, you've got to search and find the good things."