Bennett aims for pronounced improvement this fall

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Duane Bennett is used to people botching his first name. Full disclosure: if a Minnesota official hadn't said, "Here's DOO-on," before a recent interview, I would have been one of them.

"It's a common thing for them to get it wrong when they first meet me," the Minnesota sophomore running back said. "But after I enunciate it and let them know its DOO-on, they kind of catch on."

Bennett notes that the proper pronunciation is always listed in the Gophers media guide and the weekly game notes. Television broadcasters read those -- at least the good ones do -- so they should get it right on the air.

If Bennett makes a jump this fall, his name will be called a lot.

Minnesota's running game was nothing special in 2007, ranking seventh in the Big Ten. Quarterback Adam Weber led the squad in rush yards and a group of running backs beset by injuries (Amir Pinnix, Jay Thomas) and inexperience (Bennett) struggled to get on track.

After coach Tim Brewster benched Pinnix for several costly fumbles, Bennett got his first career start against Ohio State, the Big Ten's top rushing defense. He ended up starting seven games, getting mixed results. He racked up 106 yards against Michigan, becoming the first Gophers true freshman to eclipse 100 yards since Laurence Maroney in 2003. But he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in the other 10 games he played.

"Just knowing the offense is not a good thing," Bennett said. "You've got to understand what everybody's doing, the scheme of things, the routes, why we're calling this protection. Towards the middle and the latter part of the season, I started to understand where I was supposed to be and why I was supposed to be there. It gave me that feel of, 'OK, I understand why I'm important to the offense.'"

Bennett and the other backs will take on more important roles this season.

Though the "spread coast" offense requires a mobile quarterback, Weber also needs reliable runners beside him. Thomas is healthy and freshmen DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon provide depth.

The ingredients are there for a rushing resurgence this fall. Offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar produced five consecutive 1,000-yard rushers at Northwestern and Cal before joining the Gophers, and Minnesota's recent tradition at the position is on full display every Sunday.

"We're trying to not so much get the ball out of Weber's hands, just eliminate those extra hits that Weber's taking," Bennett said. "Those are unnecessary hits. We know he's a tough guy, but for him to be able to last the whole season, we want to take the load off his shoulders."