Minnesota has returned to the Texas Bowl for the second time in as many years. No one enjoys this development more than David Cobb.
The Gophers’ junior running back is from Killeen, Texas, about a three-hour drive from Reliant Stadium in Houston, where Minnesota will play Syracuse on Friday evening. Cobb expects at least 40 friends and family to attend the game and cheer on him and his cousin, Gophers inside linebacker Damien Wilson.
He also knows his supporters should have a lot more invested this time around. Last year’s Texas Bowl provided a family reunion for Cobb and his older brother, Daniel, a defensive back for Texas Tech. But neither made an appearance in the game.
“When you’re in front of your family and friends you’re your hometown and you’re not playing … I don’t want to say it’s embarrassing, but it kind of is,” Cobb told ESPN.com this week.
On the plus side, that embarrassment helped fuel Cobb’s breakout 2013 season.
He had only one carry last season, during garbage time against Iowa. Minnesota returned Donnell Kirkwood, who led the team with 926 rushing yards in 2012, and Rodrick Williams Jr. They both powered the ground attack against Texas Tech in last year’s bowl loss. But Cobb entered the offseason determined not to get buried on the depth chart again.
“The biggest thing is when you see the articles and write-ups and they’re talking about so many other guys,” he said. “As a competitor, it gets to you. It makes me want to work that much harder and be that much hungrier. It’s like people forgot about you.”
That’s no longer the case. One of the most surprising players in the Big Ten this season, Cobb has rushed for 1,111 yards, placing his sixth among league backs. He is the first Minnesota player to run for 1,000 yards since Amir Pinnix in 2006, and his six 100-yard rushing games this season are the most since Laurence Maroney did it in 2005.
Minnesota running backs coach Brian Anderson gave Cobb a pep talk after the bowl, telling him that an opportunity would come if he worked on his game. Anderson saw a much higher level of focus and attention to detail from the 5-foot-11, 225-pounder during the offseason, beginning in spring practice. The other skills had always been there.
“He came on campus as a freshman and busted long runs during our scrimmages in camp,” Anderson said. “But then he would fumble, or he’d miss a block in pass protection or go the wrong way. It was the ooh-ahh thing. You’d say, ‘He’s got all this,’ but then three plays later it’s like he doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Things snapped into place for Cobb in the preseason, but he still faced a crowded backfield picture. He, Kirkwood and Williams all played well in the first four games of the season. After that, Anderson said he told the group that he needed someone to grab control of the position and separate himself.
Cobb took that to heart, and he caught a break when Kirkwood suffered a minor injury and Williams ran into a disciplinary problem. Assuming the featured back role against Northwestern on Oct. 19, he finished that game with 103 yards on 20 carries. That was the start of four straight 100-yard games for him, and not coincidentally, the Gophers won all of them for their first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years. He ended the year with 101 hard-fought yards against Michigan State’s No. 1 nationally-ranked rush defense.
Cobb stands out as one of the success stories from Jerry Kill’s first signing class at Minnesota, and he basically wound up in the Gophers’ laps.
Rated a three-star recruit out of high school by ESPN.com, Cobb received interest from schools like Stanford, Oklahoma State and Houston. But most suitors wanted him to play defense, and he found himself with few firm offers he liked when signing day rolled around in 2011. Cobb said he was "starting to panic a bit" and then remembered that Minnesota had shown some interest earlier in the process. So he called up then-Gophers running backs coach Thomas Hammock -- who now holds the same job at Wisconsin -- on the morning of signing day and asked if he could come and visit. Two weeks later, he was a Gopher.
“I really wasn’t familiar with Minnesota at all,” he said. “All I knew is that they told me it would be cold. And it was cold.”
With a new staff in place, Minnesota was willing to take some swings on players in that first class and liked Cobb’s pure ability.
“You saw on the video tape the things that you’re seeing now,” Anderson said. “Vision, power, burst through the hole. He packs a punch when he runs. He’s a hard guy to handle one-on-one.”
The Gophers, who never developed much of a passing game this season, will likely need another strong performance from Cobb to beat Syracuse. One of the Orange’s strengths is stopping the run, as they ranked No. 26 in the FBS in allowing just 138 yards per game on the ground this season.
But Cobb likes the way his offensive line has opened up holes for him all season long. And he’s excited to show what he can do this time around in the Texas Bowl.
“You have to say no more,” he said. “Friends, family, the opportunity to come down to Texas again. I don’t need any extra motivation. I’m ready to go right now.”