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Minnesota Football: Rodney Smith is the next great Gopher running back

The preseason hype was all about Shannon Brooks, but the regular season has belonged to another sophomore back

Rutgers v Minnesota

In the preseason, sophomore Shannon Brooks was the obvious choice to lead the rushing attack for the Golden Gophers. As a freshman, Brooks averaged six yards per carry and broke highlight reel touchdown runs of 40, 71, 38, and 75 yards. His fondness for trucking defenders quickly made him a Gopher fan favorite. Brooks would finish the season with 709 rushing yards and seven touchdowns despite the fact that he rode the bench during the first three games of the season. You can’t blame the media — and, for the most part, Gopher fans — for heralding Brooks as the next great Gopher running back. None of them could have foreseen that Brooks would miss the first two games of the season with a broken foot.

And I’m not sure that a lot of people would have guessed that Rodney Smith would seize the starting tailback position and never look back.

As a redshirt freshman last season, Smith started strong as the Gophers’ feature back, rushing for 363 yards and one touchdown through the first four games of the season. But aside from a valiant performance against Michigan, he faded down the stretch, in large part due to the emergence of Brooks and because of an ankle injury that hobbled him around the midpoint of the regular season. Smith would finish the year with 670 rushing yards and three touchdowns. While Brooks had built a reputation as a home run threat, Smith’s longest run of the season was a 37-yarder in the bowl game. A far cry from the big play ability of his partner-in-crime at running back.

When Brooks suffered a broken foot in preseason camp, most Gopher fans felt confident that Smith would be more than capable of carrying the load until his return. But Smith has been more than a fill-in. He is averaging 5.3 yards per carry — a full yard more than he averaged last season — and has eight touchdowns through seven games after totaling three scores all of last season. Smith has rushed for 701 yards through seven games, already eclipsing his rushing total from the twelve games he participated in last season. He is also fourth on the team in receiving, with 11 receptions for 110 yards. Oh, and about that lack of big play ability...

And for those of you with short-term memory loss...

Even when Brooks returned against Colorado State, fans expected him to gradually take over as the feature back in the Gophers’ offense. But Smith has not relinquished his stranglehold on the starting tailback position — even as their carries have begun to even out — and has arguably outperformed his backfield counterpart in all but one of their last five games.

With five regular season games left and a potential bowl game on the horizon, Smith needs just 300 more rushing yards to eclipse 1,000. He would be the first Minnesota sophomore to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Laurence Maroney in 2004. Of the Gophers’ current top 10 all-time leading rushers, just four of them rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a sophomore. One of the few accomplishments that has eluded Smith is a 200-yard rushing game, but that is easier said than done when you’re splitting carries with another equally talented running back.

I also want to make clear that I’m not trying to paint Shannon Brooks as overrated. I can praise Smith without knocking Brooks. Even after missing the first two games of the season, Brooks has been solid, rushing for 413 yards and four touchdowns. He hasn’t quite been the home run threat that he was as a freshman, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before he finds the open field again for a long touchdown run.

But Smith is currently second in the Big Ten in rushing, trailing only Northwestern’s Justin Jackson (171 carries, 792 rushing yards, six touchdowns). You just wouldn’t know that because no seems to be talking about Rodney Smith. Let’s hope that changes soon, because this is shaping up to be a breakout season for the sophomore back.

And with how much we’ve all hyped up Shannon Brooks, it’s time we recognize that Smith has no plans to play second fiddle in his career as a Gopher.