Gophers look to give Gray offensive help

Brandon Green has been MarQueis Gray's roommate for the past two years, and the two Minnesota teammates share many of the same classes. So Green has a close friendship with his quarterback. But even strangers could tell that Gray needs a little more support on the field in 2012.

Gray got much better as the season went along in 2011 and has the potential to develop into a star this year for the Gophers. He carried a heavy workload last year, though, as he led the team in both rushing (966 yards) and carries (199) as well as throwing the ball. In the last two games of the season, he rushed 27 times each.

"We want to cut that down some so he can throw some more," Green said. "I feel like with the running backs and receivers we've got back, we can make plays for him and reduce the load down on him."

That confidence is based more on potential than past evidence this spring. Minnesota's top receiver the past couple of seasons, Da'Jon McKnight, was a senior last year. The leading returning pass catcher is Green, who had just 15 receptions in 2011. The Gophers also lost last year's leading rusher at tailback, departed senior Duane Bennett, and Donnell Kirkwood is injured this spring.

Still, Minnesota -- which lacked a lot of big plays on offense in head coach Jerry Kill's first season -- is hopeful that more options and more comfort at the skill positions will translate into a more diversified attack.

"If we have nothing else, all the way around we have competition," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.

The Gophers need someone to emerge at running back, both to take the pressure off Gray to carry the ball and to turn their rushing game into a two-pronged danger. It's an unproven group this spring, which is a big reason why Minnesota brought in junior college transfer James Gillum, who ran for 1,042 yards at Mississippi Gulf Coast last year.

"The thing about I like about him was that he was down in Mississippi playing against SEC linebackers and defensive ends," Limegrover said. "And no offense to his offensive linemen, but sometimes those are in-state guys. So a lot of times he was making something out of just nothing, and he was still grinding out 130, 140 yards per game.

"I feel like he brings kind of a grit as a guy who can say, 'OK, hand me the ball and I'll do my thing.'"

Kill also pointed to David Cobb, who played sparingly as a true freshman, as a 220-pound standout athlete who could contribute at tailback.

The receiver position has more bodies than this time a year ago but no true leader. But Green, who's now a senior, wants to change that.

"Now that Da'Jon is gone, I've got the most experience," he said. "I feel like it's my time to step up and lead the receivers and do what I need to do to help us win."

Other possibilities in the passing game are Devin Crawford-Tufts, who played as a true freshman in 2011; Marcus Jones, who's coming off an ACL injury; Malcolm Moulton, who played some as a junior-college import last year; and new juco transfer Isaac Fruechte.

"There's a lot of depth, and different receivers can do different things," Green said. "I feel like we've got a lot of weapons where MarQueis can go out and pass the ball around."

If so, his roommate might have less of a burden to carry in 2012.