Gophers will send deep backfield at SDSU in opener

Published 8:00 am Thursday, August 29, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS — When Rodney Smith went down with a season-ending knee injury in the second game of 2018, Minnesota turned to Mohamed Ibrahim as the lead ball carrier and enjoyed a seamless senior-to-freshman handoff of the backfield baton.

This year, those two will probably be passing it back and forth a lot more.

Smith, granted a medical redshirt, has returned with his 2,959 career rushing yards for a sixth season. Ibrahim, the second-leading freshman rusher in college football last year, has gladly made room for a widely respected player who became a mentor and unofficial coach while rehabbing last season.

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“I’d say we are the tightest-knit group on the team. I’m sure everybody says that, but we truly have a bond that, off of the football field, you can see,” Smith said. “We’re there for each other off of the field when things go on. Injuries, we’re all there. Surgeries, we all show up. Just to make sure that we’re all taken care of.”

When the Gophers take on South Dakota State in the opener Thursday night, they will surely send a steady stream of carries by both Smith and Ibrahim at the Jackrabbits in an attempt to establish their strength.

“They’re game-breaker type guys,” Jackrabbits coach John Stiegelmeier said, adding: “We’re going to have to grab some cloth and gang tackle.”

Another sophomore, Bryce Williams, had 502 yards and four touchdowns for Minnesota in 2018. Coach P.J. Fleck said he’ll also look to play true freshmen Treyson Potts and Cam Wiley against South Dakota State. Not to be left out of the mix for 2019 is fifth-year senior Shannon Brooks, whose knee injuries have set him back the last two seasons and was still in rehab mode when fall camp began.

“We need to have running backs in the Big Ten. If you ask any head football coach and say, ‘I’ll give you five to six running backs that can play,’ I don’t think there’s anyone who would turn that down. As physical of a conference we’re in, especially the teams that run the ball as much as we run the ball, you want to have depth,” Fleck said.

The quartet of Smith, Brooks, Ibrahim and Williams has already logged a total of 1,328 carries, 6,503 yards, 52 touchdowns and 12 seasons over their careers. They’ll likely all share the load in some undetermined way over the course of this fall.