David Cobb’s apartment resembles a hospital ward on Sunday mornings in the fall.
Cobb is Minnesota’s load-bearing running back, one of the toughest players to tackle in the Big Ten. His roommate and cousin, Damien Wilson, is the Gophers’ middle linebacker and one of the toughest tacklers in the Big Ten. Together, their home leads the Twin Cities area in per capita bumps and bruises.
“We barely get out of bed,” Wilson said of their routine the day after a game. “We have to motivate each other just to walk around. Normally we get a couple Advils, a few Aleves and go to get treatment on Sunday.”
Staying healthy is a full-time occupation for Cobb. The senior accounted for 47 percent of Minnesota’s total yards through the first five games of the season. None of the other Big Ten backs garnering national acclaim this season reach even 40 percent. Only two players in the country -- Buffalo’s Anthone Taylor and Pitt’s James Conner -- average more carries per game than Cobb. He is the engine of a 4-1 Gophers team, which can take control of the Big Ten West Division with a win over Northwestern this weekend.
All that work should take a toll on Cobb’s 5-foot-11, 220-pound body, but nearing the midway point of the season, he shows no signs of slowing down. He credits his durability to a relentless offseason work ethic and his recent discovery of healthy eating habits.
“That and I didn’t play that much the first two years,” he said. “So I’m kind of fresh.”
Cobb stepped into a starting role midway through his junior season at Minnesota. He ran the ball 237 times for 1,202 yards last fall. When he returned to campus in January, Cobb’s strength coaches sat him down and told him he was lucky he survived. If he planned on maintaining the same workload for a full season, he was going to have to start taking care of his body.
The weight room and the film room have never been a problem for the ultra-competitive Cobb. He is a tireless worker, according to Chad Pearson, an assistant strength coach who also oversaw the team’s nutrition program before Minnesota hired a full-time team dietitian in July. The dining room has been a different story.
“He was always one of our top guys as far as training goes,” Pearson said. “He’s been a guy [who] brings an edge. He’s a very good athlete, very hard worker, but he thought that’s where it stopped.”
Cobb is a picky eater. His diet before this offseason consisted mostly of cereal and fast food. He recoiled at the sight of vegetables, even if they were wedged between a pair of grease-soaked buns at McDonald’s. His go-to at the golden arches was a cheeseburger, hold everything but the meat and cheese.
Dietitian Brittany Francis has talked him into eating three square meals a day this season and reminds him daily to grab a piece of fruit on his way to class. Cobb didn’t really buy into eating healthy everyday until this summer, telling Wilson he was done pouring cheap gas into a Ferrari. He admits it’s an uphill battle, but he’s making progress.
“She makes me eat breakfast, makes me eat lunch and dinner,” Cobb said. “I’m still trying to learn. She probably yells at me four times a week, ‘Hey, put that cookie down. Stop going to McDonald’s.’”
The Gophers staff monitors Cobb’s energy output in games and practices closely. They use the Catapult GPS-tracking system to see how much he’s running and if he’s slowing down. He weighs in three times a week to make sure he is keeping his strength. If his numbers dip, Francis adjusts the calories he needs to eat or ounces of water he needs to drink on a daily basis.
During Minnesota’s first bye this past week, Cobb focused on his weight and recovering in the cold tub. He went eight full days without practicing. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said he would like to give his emerging star more time to rest, but he’s hard to take off the field, especially when he continues to get stronger later in games.
Cobb’s ability to power through would-be tacklers and take on pass rushers on the rare occasions when the ball isn’t in his hands has made him an enticing prospect at the next level. That, as much as anything, has convinced him to rethink what he puts in his body.
He developed relationships with Darrell Thompson, Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney -- all former Gophers who have gone on to successful NFL careers. All three told Cobb that the most important lesson they learned in college was how to take care of themselves.
Cobb, if he heeds their advice and stays healthy, is on pace to pass all three in the Gophers' record books. At the rate he’s running, he’ll finish the regular season with 1,732 yards, eclipsing Maroney’s single-year record by nearly 300 yards.
It’s a mark Cobb says he definitely wants to leave, but he’s more concerned with carrying his team to its third consecutive bowl appearance. A win this weekend against the resurgent Wildcats would give Minnesota a 2-0 conference record and place them atop the Big Ten’s wide open wild West Divison. Staying on top will likely depend heavily on how much punishment Cobb’s body can handle in the second half of the season.
“I have noticed that he’s been eating healthy,” Wilson said. “I haven’t seen any McDonald’s in a long, long time. … He saw that last year was really good. This year he’s on a mission to get better. You can definitely see the hunger. He’s hungry for it.”
Cobb’s appetite is clear. The only question is how he will feed it.