Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Duane Bennett lost a season but gained a healthy dose of perspective, not to mention a new offense that makes running backs drool.
Bennett appeared destined for big things last fall at Minnesota. He racked up 140 rush yards, 125 receiving yards and three touchdowns (2 rush, 1 receiving) in less than two games before tearing the ACL in his left knee in the fourth quarter of a win at Bowling Green.
After quickly establishing himself as the Golden Gophers' top back, Bennett could merely watch as the team struggled on the ground, finishing last in the Big Ten and 104th nationally in rushing (103.8 ypg).
"I felt I was taking a step in the right direction to really have a solid season last year," he said Monday night. "But once the injury occurred, we refocused and gathered our thoughts, never detoured from the vision but changed the way we went about it.”
Bennett has fully recovered from the injury and returns to a seemingly perfect situation with the Gophers this fall.
The team's woeful rush attack in 2008 prompted head coach Tim Brewster to revamp the offense. This fall, Minnesota will employ a pro-style system that will accentuate a downhill run game.
Two years of the spread offense diverted Minnesota from its rushing roots, as the team fell from among the nation's elite in 2004 and 2005 to the middle of the Big Ten in 2007 and then to the bottom last fall. Brewster hired offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch and offensive line coach Tim Davis, the team's running game coordinator, to get things back on track.
"We still had a great game plan with the spread, but just jumping back into the I-formation was a great transition for us," Bennett said. "It gives us the chance to see the defense from a different perspective, having those seven-man boxes, eight-man boxes. It gets us back to what Minnesota’s running game is all about, using a tight end and a fullback and really pounding the ball, playing like a Big Ten team is supposed to play."
Minnesota unveils its new offense Saturday in the season opener against Syracuse (ESPN2, noon ET), a team that ranked 101st nationally against the run last fall. Brewster expects to use a three-man rotation at running back with Bennett, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley.
Bennett, who received a medical hardship waiver for 2008, went through winter workouts with his teammates and was allowed to do noncontact drills during spring ball. Brewster last week declared the sophomore "100 percent healthy," and Bennett has spent preseason camp absorbing the new offense.
"The cuts are a little more crisp," he explained. "You’re able to use your linemen a lot more, really press the issue with those big guys up front. In the spread, it’s all about speed and how you can get to one point faster than the defender, so I really felt that converting to the I-formation is good. We’ve been able to re-establish the dominance up front, really putting the game on the shoulders of the offensive linemen once again.
"Being able to get downhill, being able to see things from a North-and-South perspective instead of an East-and-West [perspective] is really going to help.”
Minnesota's running tradition wasn't the deciding factor in Bennett's decision to play for the Gophers, but he's well aware of the names that came before him.
"I knew about Marion Barber, Thomas Tapeh, Terry Jackson, Laurence Maroney, all the consecutive 1,000-yard rushers they had over those years," Bennett said. "I wanted to go to a team that really established the run, and at that point in time, Minnesota was one of the best teams in the run game.”
Minnesota hopes to reclaim that distinction this fall, and Bennett could be the man leading the charge.