For Western Illinois RBs coach, return trip to Minnesota is a walk down memory lane

First-year Western Illinois running backs coach Donnell Kirkwood (20 above) will return to his college roots Sept. 10 when WIU travels to Minnesota. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

Donnell Kirkwood has only spent a few minutes on the visiting sideline at the University of Minnesota’s Huntington Bank Stadium.

“I’ve never been on that sideline other than to run over and grab a trophy,” said Kirkwood, who played in 53 games at running back for the Golden Gophers during his playing career. “It will be interesting to coach from it.”

Kirkwood, the first-year running backs coach at Western Illinois, expects a flood of emotions when the Leathernecks (0-1) face his alma mater at 11 a.m. Sept. 10 in Minneapolis.

“I’ll be happy,” he said. “It’ll be exciting to share that experience with the running backs I coach now.”

Donnell Kirkwood led Minnesota in rushing as a sophomore in 2012. (Photo by

On his previous two trips to the visiting sideline at the Gophers’ home field, he had a different job.

“I grabbed the pig, and I grabbed the bell,” he said.

For Kirkwood and his Gophers’ teammates, that meant collecting Floyd of Rosedale, the bronze pig given to the winner of the Minnesota-Iowa game, and grabbing the Governor’s Victory Bell, which is awarded in the Minnesota-Penn State rivalry.

Keeping Floyd in Minnesota came in Kirkwood’s senior year in 2014, and the 51-14 victory against the Hawkeyes was one of his greatest memories in college.

“It got ugly pretty quick,” he said. “The way we prepared that week was just special.”

His other memorable game was a 134-yard rushing effort in a 44-28 win against Purdue as a sophomore in 2012, the season he led Minnesota in rushing.

“That was one of my most successful games,” Kirkwood said. “I felt real comfortable, and it was the best I had played football in a long time.”

Some of the current WIU players, however, aren’t often aware that Kirkwood played the game at a high level until they look at his legs.

“I have a tattoo on the back of my leg, which is the (Minnesota) M. There’s a chain hanging off of it with my number (20),” he said. “They’ll see it and say, ‘Wait, coach. You played at Minnesota?’ Then they’ll go look at the highlights. I had two linebackers walk up this week and say, ‘Coach, you were pretty good!’

“You get a couple kids who get to talking about it and if they can tackle you in the hole,” he said with a laugh. “It’s fun.”

As for his current team, Kirkwood said the offense will continue to feature multiple backs, including 210-pound junior Ludovick Choquette, who had two receptions for 32 yards and six carries for 14 yards in last week’s loss to UT-Martin. Senior Erin Collins, a Northern Illinois transfer, had seven rushes for 22 yards a week ago, while Temple transfer Kyle Dobbins, a junior, carried the ball twice.

“’Ludo’ is my physical banger,” Kirkwood said. “He’s the hammer and he does it all. He catches. He runs. He blocks. (Collins) is a bigger back. He’s smooth but he’s also strong and can move a pile. Then you’ve got Dobbins, who is sleek, and he’s got some speed on him.”

Jaylen Reed of East St. Louis likely will be up to speed soon and contributing to the mix of backs.

“He’s going to be exciting,” Kirkwood said of the 5-6 sophomore. “He’s a really dynamic back with the ball in his hands.”

This week’s opponent

The Gophers, who were 9-4 a season ago, opened the 2022 campaign with a 38-0 victory against New Mexico State. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim (132 yards, two TDs) and quarterback Tanner Morgan (13-for-19 passing, 174 yards, two rushing TDs) are sixth-year players who are keys to the offensive attack. Last season, Minnesota ranked third nationally in total defense, allowing 278.8 yards a game, the lowest total since 1974 for the Gophers.

(Kickoff: 11 a.m.; TV: Big Ten Network; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

Minnesota run game vs. WIU front seven: The Leathernecks allowed 6.0 yards per carry against a ranked FCS opponent (UT-Martin) in Week 1. WIU steps up a level in competition against the Gophers, who are led by Ibrahim, who is only the eighth player in school history to rush for more than 3,000 career yards. In six of its 12 games last season, Minnesota rushed for at least 160 yards. The Gophers powered their way to 297 yards against New Mexico State.

What’s at stake?

Western is 0-8 all-time against current members of the Big Ten Conference. The Leathernecks played Minnesota one previous time, a 29-12 loss to the Gophers in 2013. WIU’s last win vs. an FBS opponent was a 52-10 victory at Coastal Carolina in 2017.

Quick hits

In his WIU debut, graduate transfer wide receiver Naseim Brantley won Missouri Valley Football Conference Newcomer of the Week honors after catching six passes for 171 yards and three TDs in the loss to UT-Martin. … Western Illinois will receive a $450,000 guarantee for playing at Minnesota, according to

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