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Minnesota Football: Spring Position Previews - Running Backs

Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith are a formidable tandem at running back, but the Gophers need to establish more depth at the position.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Between now and the Gophers' spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 9, we'll be breaking down each position group on both offense and defense. We'll take a look at who is leaving, who is coming back, and what to watch for before Minnesota takes the field for fall training camp.

Next up? The running backs.

Key Departure(s): Rodrick Williams, Miles Thomas, and Berkley Edwards
Key Returner(s): Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith
New Arrival(s): Kobe McCrary

Similar to the quarterback position, there won't be much drama here. The issue at running back will be depth. Senior Rodrick Williams graduated after fading from view following a poor performance in the season opener, and redshirt sophomore Berkley Edwards transferred to Central Michigan after the season for more playing time. Lack of playing time for both Williams and Edwards was a direct result of the emergence of sophomores Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith.

Smith emerged after a redshirt year with a strong season-opening performance against TCU, rushing for 88 yards on 16 attempts with one touchdown. He wouldn't reach the end zone again until the regular season finale against Wisconsin, finishing out the season with 670 rushing yards on 157 attempts and two touchdowns. Smith was hampered late last year with an ankle injury that hobbled him against Ohio State and caused him to sit out the Iowa game and most of the Illinois game.

Brooks burst onto the scene as a true freshman with a promising debut performance against Ohio, after a botched handoff led to a fumble in the Colorado State game, where his playing time was short-lived. Against the Bobcats, Brooks rushed for 82 yards on 10 rushing attempts with two touchdowns, including the game-winner. He would develop into the Gophers' most reliable home run threat by the end of the season, with touchdown runs of 40, 71, 38, and 75 yards. He would finish the season with 709 yards on 109 attempts -- good for 6.0 yards per carry -- with 7 rushing touchdowns, and that was without recording a statistic through the first three games. His knack for explosive plays and bruising style of play had Gopher fans drooling at his potential.

The most encouraging thing about Brooks' and Smith's strong performances last season, aside from the fact that both were freshmen, is that they put up impressive numbers behind a makeshift offensive line that struggled to open up running lanes. If new offensive line coach Bart Miller can work his magic on a line in desperate need of help, imagine what these two young backs could do.

Behind Brooks and Smith are redshirt freshmen running backs Jonathan Femi-Cole and James Johannesson. Not much is known about either of them, with Brooks and Smith casting quite a shadow. Keep an eye out for them in the spring. Junior college running back Kobe McCrary was signed to add depth to a very young stable of running backs. McCrary, a down-hill runner who thrives between the tackles, ran for 1,190 yards on 225 attempts with 22 touchdowns for Butler Community College last season. Expect him to contribute a lot next season and help Brooks and Smith carry the load.

The Gophers will also need to replace graduating senior Miles Thomas at fullback. Thomas was an excellent blocker, and provided a sure-handed target in the short passing game. His back-up, walk-on Tyler Hartmann, has moved on from the program. That leaves Colton Beebe as the lone scholarship player at the fullback position (incoming freshman fullback Connor Mohs is a walk-on). But Beebe has also been mentioned as a tight end, and recent comments from Tracy Claeys would suggest that he wants the fullback and tight end positions to be interchangeable on offense. So expect the fullback position to evolve beyond the traditional role that we've seen. Or we could see Brandon Lingen blocking out of the backfield for Brooks and Smith. We'll have to wait and see what Jay Johnson has in store for that position.