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Minnesota Football Previews: Gopher Running Backs, an Upgrade or Downgrade?

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

There are several ways one can do positional previews as you near the season. My favorite way is to take a look at the positional group form 2015, compare it to this year's group and decided if this is an upgrade or a downgrade? Everyone is filled with optimism at this point every year but we have to try (TRY) to be a little objective to see if the optimism is warranted or not.

Last Year

Starter: Shannon Brooks & Rodney Smith
Backup: Rodrick Williams Jr.

Going into the 2015 season Rodrick Williams was expected to be your lead back but the senior was quickly passed on the depth chart by a couple of freshman backs who have Gopher fans pretty excited about the next few years at tailback.

Rodney Smith was coming off a redshirt year and earned the job as starter for the first three games of the year before true freshman, Shannon Brooks came along to split carries and the future Gopher backfield was in play for the remaining 10 games.  The two combined for nearly 1,400 yards and 9 TDs behind what was not considered a particularly strong offensive line.  But both showed some very nice moves, ability to hit holes, run people over and hit a home run on occasion.

Not a whole lot to say about last year other than these two showed some play-making ability as dynamic backs, not just guys who can hit a hole to get 3 yards.  There is reason to be excited about the next few years...

This Year

Projected Starter: Shannon Brooks & Rodney Smith
Backup: Coby McCrary
Youth: Jonathan Femi-Cole, James Johannesson

Which brings us to this year where, like our QB preview, we basically have the primary players returning.  Brooks and Smith enter the year with high expectations to equal or improve upon last year's production.

I think that this group is another obvious upgrade due strictly to the fact that the primary guys are returning and should be better for the year of experience and another year of strength training.  Brooks was just a true freshman last year and was learning on the job.  For my money, he was the primary back throughout the last half of the season and would be the team's leader in yards this year.  Unfortunately he broke a bone in his foot and is going to be out 3-5 weeks.  Fortunately Rodney Smith is very good as well and will be given the chance to be the primary guy throughout the non-conference games before Brooks is likely back for Penn State.

And don't forget about Coby McCrary, the JUCO back who was brought in just in case someone was injured and we needed some RB depth.  McCrary is a much bigger back than the two sophomores but he has some shiftiness to him.  The weight of Roderick Williams but looks much more like David Cobb.  He'll be a nice third back who is going to be needed with Brooks on the sidelines for a few games.

After that you have a couple of redshirt freshmen in James Johannesson and Jonathan Femi-Cole.  Both are also in that big back mold coming in around 230 lbs and standing over 6'0".  Neither are expected to push for playing time this year but should provide a little depth as needed and will hopefully get some game reps in the first few games of the season.

Upgrade or Downgrade?

Assuming at least one of Smith and Brooks remains healthy, I expect that this is going to be an upgrade.  Factor in what is hopefully going to be an improved offensive line, and the numbers should really support this notion.  I think people will be pleasantly surprised with McCrary as well and he'll be a nice asset as well.

This group is another upgrade purely because of another year has passed.  But especially considering the two primary backs are going into their sophomore seasons.


Brooks and Smith will combine for 1,800 yards with Brooks getting over 1,000 and All Big Ten consideration.  I'm a big fan of his.  I'm probably short-changing Smith, who also could end up being the guy who leads the team in yards and has a monster year.  But I'm going with Brooks as my guy.