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Minnesota Football 2017 Preview: Running Back Upgrade / Downgrade

The return of Brooks and Smith is sure to be an upgrade right?

Minnesota v Maryland Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

For a handful of years under Glen Mason the Gophers were putting fear into Big Ten defenses with their running games featuring not one, but two elite backs. Year after year of both backs racking up 1,000 yards or more in the same season. Once again the Gophers have a two-headed rushing attack that Big Ten defenses have to account for. But we had the same backs a year ago, this one has to be an upgrade by the experience gained over 12 months right?


Starter: Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks
Depth: Koby McCrary

Heading into the 2016 season I was convinced that Shannon Brooks was the headlining back and Rodney Smith was pretty good too. In 2015 he is the one who had highlight runs trucking Purdue defenders and finished with over 700 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns on just 119 attempts (6 yards per carry).

Both backs are Georgia natives and both were poised to have big sophomore seasons.

But in 2016 it was Rodney Smith who shown the brightest. He had 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016. He was one of the best backs in the nation with yards after contact, which was a good thing because much of that contact occurred behind the line of scrimmage. Smith was one of the better backs in a conference that was full of elite backs.

Brooks was no slouch in his sophomore year as well but his 650 yards were complimentary this time around. He dealt with minor injuries early in the season and fell into the “other back.” role after Smith took off with the bulk of the carries.

Koby McCrary was the JUCO transfer brought in to make sure there was quality depth behind those two backs. He was given 39 carries that he turned into 242 yards and 3 touchdowns. Most of his production came against Indiana State, when Brooks was unable to play.


Starter: Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks
Depth: Koby McCrary
Freshmen: Mohamed Ibrahim, Dominik London

Now we enter the 2017 season with all three backs returning and primed to lead a fantastic Gopher rushing attack.

There really isn’t much to talk about here. Smith is almost certain to be the lead back who will be complimented very well by Brooks. The offensive line “should” be better, providing more opportunities for the Gopher backs to get positive yardage before having to make defenders miss. I would suggest not sleeping on Brooks. Healthy and ready to be every bit the play-maker that Smith is.

McCrary will continue to be the depth man, providing quality insurance should Smith or Brooks have to spend more time with the training staff than we’d all prefer.

Beyond those three we have a couple true freshmen on the roster who likely won’t factor into this season. Expect a redshirt year for both unless one is particularly valuable on special teams. Not to diminish their talents, but with guys like Smith and Brooks ahead of them, it is just hard to see them earning many carries.


Yes, this one is an upgrade. Experience, health, improved offensive line all point to a better rushing attack than we saw last year. How much better? Incrementally better, but an upgrade is an upgrade.

Assuming good health, Smith and Brooks combine this year for 2,000 yards. Probably not 1,000 each, but one 1,200 and 800 or 1,100 and 900 are quite realistic.

McCrary is solid in his role and the Gopher rushing attack is one of the best in the Big Ten.


Will the Gopher running backs be an upgrade or a downgrade over 2016?

This poll is closed

  • 88%
    Upgrade - biggest no-brainer in the history of mankind
    (434 votes)
  • 0%
    Downgrade - maybe you think this
    (1 vote)
  • 11%
    Neutral - eh...about the same
    (58 votes)
493 votes total Vote Now