Spring football under new head coach P.J. Fleck opened up on Tuesday with the team’s first spring practice, and we’ll be previewing each position group in the weeks leading up to the spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 15.
We turn our attention now to the position group almost certain to have the least amount of drama this spring (fingers crossed): Running back.
Key Departure(s): None
Key Returner(s): Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, and Kobe McCrary
New Arrival(s): None
Not much will change for the rushing attack
Even with a new offensive coordinator in Kirk Ciarrocca, there won’t be a dramatic difference in how the Gophers run the football. The core concept of the run-pass option is very similar to the zone-read employed by the previous offensive coaching staff. But I would expect a more balanced offensive approach compared to the Jerry Kill era. Just last season, the Gophers had 558 rush attempts compared to 328 pass attempts. For comparison, Fleck’s Broncos had 389 rush attempts compared to 438 pass attempts. If the Gophers can improve at stretching the defense through the air, that would theoretically open up running lanes, as opposed to the brick walls Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have been running into the last two years.
In three of their four years at Western Michigan, Fleck and Ciarrocca finished the season with a 1,000-yard rusher on offense. Outside of 2013, when the Broncos featured a single running back with more than 300 rushing attempts, the staff seemed to favor a two-headed rushing attack.
I would also expect the running backs to be featured more in the passing game moving forward. In each of the last three seasons at Western Michigan, a Bronco running back has finished the season ranked in the team’s top five leading receivers.
Kenni Burns is the new running backs coach. Burns was a running back at Indiana from 2003-06, but I can’t seem to find any career statistics. So I’m going to assume he didn’t see the field. His coaching career started the following year as running backs coach at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. After a one-year stint, Burns spent the next seven years coaching tight ends or wide receivers, until being hired to coach running backs at Western Michigan ahead of last season. Junior Jarvion Franklin and sophomore Jamauri Bogan combined for 2,276 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns in Burns’ lone season with the Broncos. If Burns can replicate that kind of rushing attack at Minnesota with Smith and Brooks, look out.
Don’t call them ‘Slash and Bash.’ Seriously.
You might be familiar with Rodney Smith. The Gopher running back had a promising redshirt freshman season in 2015 to the tune of 670 rushing yards on 157 attempts, with two touchdowns. But as a redshirt sophomore, Smith roared into the All-B1G conversation with 1,158 rushing yards on 240 attempts, with 16 rushing touchdowns. He rushed for at least 100 yards in six games last season, and scored a touchdown in all but three games. His highlight reel included a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Rutgers during Homecoming. Smith was expected to play second fiddle to Shannon Brooks, but when Brooks went down with a broken foot early in the season, Smith seized the starting running back position and never let go.
Brooks had a solid but unspectacular sophomore season. Expectations were high after a freshman campaign where he rushed for 709 yards on 119 attempts, with seven touchdowns. He averaged six yards per carry as a freshman, and had a breakout performance against Purdue where he trucked Boilermaker defenders en route to 176 rushing yards and one 71-yard touchdown run. As a sophomore, Brooks missed three games due to injury and never quite displayed the explosiveness that made him such a home run threat as a freshman. He finished the season with 650 rushing yards on 138 attempts, with five touchdowns.
Senior Kobe McCrary was a JUCO running back brought in last season to provide insurance for Smith and Brooks. He played in eight games and rushed for 242 yards on 39 attempts with three rushing touchdowns. McCrary never saw more than five carries in a game, with the exception of the victory over Indiana State, when he rushed for 176 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns. McCrary could see an increased role this fall as he enters his senior season.
The problem with having two potential four-year starters at running back is that everyone behind them on the depth chart is left stranded on the sideline.
James Johannesson had a breakout spring game a year ago, but never saw the field last season as a redshirt freshman. He ended up transferring to North Dakota in December. Jonathan Femi-Cole will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall and has yet to see game action as a Gopher. If not for McCrary, Femi-Cole would be the lone scholarship running back behind Smith and Brooks.
Freshman running backs Mohamed Ibrahim and Dominik London will add much needed depth at the position, but won’t enroll until the fall.
Next Up: Wide Receivers.