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Gophers' offense hits the ground running

By the end of last season, Minnesota's offense was being held together by little more than spit and string.

Offensive line injuries and a general lack of depth had the coaching staff scrambling for anything that would work. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover remembers the desperation that went into writing out the game plan for those final few weeks in November.

"We got to where we were putting up plays and going, 'OK, we hope this one gets us five yards. If we run this one once, hopefully it's enough to get us into a second-and-normal situation,'" Limegrover told ESPN.com. "There just wasn't that flow."

Everything changed during bowl season. The offensive linemen regained their health and the coaches got 15 extra practices to reset the approach. After averaging just 13.5 points per game over their final four regular-season contest, the Gophers scored 31 against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Though they lost that game, they gained something potentially more valuable: an offensive identity.

"Really for the first time since we've been here, I feel like a lot of the components of what we want to do and who we want to be are in place," said Limegrover, who is entering Year 3 in the Twin Cities along with the rest of head coach Jerry Kill's staff.

The confidence earned in that bowl performance has carried over into spring practice. Minnesota discovered last December that it had something to build its offense around: a strong running game. The Gophers ran for 222 yards against Texas Tech and are looking to continue that same hard-nosed philosophy this year.

It helps that they return leading rusher Donnell Kirkwood, whose 926 yards as a junior were the most by a Gopher back since 2006. The 223-pound Kirkwood came into spring focused on correcting all the little mistakes he made last year and learning not to dwell on them.

"I'm more comfortable with myself," he said. "I'm not grading myself as hard and not getting in the gutter when I do something bad. I'm very critical of myself, but I've kind of learned that's part of the game. I've got to keep playing after mistakes."

Limegrover says Kirkwood is becoming more of a complete back in all areas of his game.

"The guys up front love him," Limegrover said. "They know he's going to run hard and he's going to hit where he needs to hit. They know that if we do our job, he makes us look good."

Kirkwood is also getting pushed by 235-pound sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr., who came on late last season and ran for 60 yards and a touchdown in the bowl. And Limegrover said junior David Cobb might have the most natural ability of all the running backs on the roster and could "really be a kid that pops on the scene" if he figures out the finer points of the game.

Minnesota has some backs with meat on their bones and an offensive line that is starting to develop a nasty streak, even with tackle Ed Olson out this spring because of an injury.

"The days are gone of saying, 'Well, our offensive line is young, they're inexperienced,'" Limegrover said. "We've got to step up and be able to play with the big boys up front. I don't know if offensive linemen ever have a swagger, but there's definitely a different feeling in that room right now about what we can and can't do."

Having that power run game should also benefit quarterback Philip Nelson. Not only will it open things up in the play-action game, but the Gophers won't have to ask Nelson to run the ball as much. Limegrover said Minnesota relied too much on the quarterback run game last year because it went into the season thinking it would have MarQueis Gray under center all year. Now, they can use it as a complementary piece of the offense and pick their spots with it.

The passing game still needs polish, but the running game has given the Gophers a great building block. At a recent Saturday practice, Limegrover said the offense was clicking like an advanced operation.

"I had to kind of readjust my eyes because things were happening very quickly," he said. "It was really the first time since I've been here where we were like, 'Wow, that happened pretty fast.'"

And the days of holding together the offense with spit and string seemed like a distant memory.