Our second look in our upgrade/downgrade series is taking a look at running back. An area where the Gophers have been strong in the very recent years after going 2006-2012 without a 1,000 yard rusher. But David Cobb rushed for back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in 2013 and 2014 before handing the lead back role to a combination of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks for the last three years. Smith is back for one more year, is his return alone enough for this to be an upgrade at running back?
WHO IS GONE
The only significant graduation is Koby McCrary, the JUCO transfer who ended up being a career backup to the backup. It was unfortunate for him that both Smith and Brooks emerged as talented backs for the Gophers, but it was incredibly fortunate for Minnesota that McCrary was here as those two have exchanged injuries over their careers. McCrary finished with 742 career yards as a Gopher and in games where he was featured he fared well. He ran through Middle Tennessee State for 107 yards and 3 TDs, 153 yards and 1 TD against Illinois and had 3 touchdowns and 93 yards against Nebraska. As injuries sidelined Brooks and Smith last year, McCrary was a valuable guy to have in the stable.
Also gone, or maybe more appropriately “gone,” is Shannon Brooks who is going to miss the entire 2018 season after a non-contact leg injury occurred this winter. Brooks has missed several games due to injury in both 2016 and 2017 after breaking out as a freshman in 2015. The good news is that he’ll have a full year to get his body healthy and hopefully primed for a huge senior season in 2019.
Rodney Smith returns and looks to move his way up the Gopher career rushing charts. He is already 8th all time in total rushing with 2,805 yards. With a season of 1,006 yards he would move up to 3rd all time on the Gopher career leaders and 2nd place is a realistic possibility assuming health. Smith has excellent vision and a burst when he hits the open field. It should be a real treat to watch him during his final season with the Gophers. With Brooks sidelined and nobody expected to really take carries away from Smith, expect him to flourish as a senior.
In addition to Smith, the Gophers have three returning scholarship backs. Jonathan Femi-Cole is a redshirt junior who has seen limited action in his Gopher with 9 career carries. Then the Gophers will be looking to a couple of redshirt freshmen in Mohamed Ibrahim and Dominik London. Having never played a down, both are difficult to project but at this point but I would suspect that Ibrahim is the most likely candidate to pick up the carries not given to Smith.
WHO IS ADDED
Incoming are two true freshmen. Bryce Williams and Nolan Edmonds were the two RB recruits for Fleck and staff in their first full recruiting cycle. Nice recruits who very well could factor into the offense and play as a true freshmen.
PJ Fleck was protective of freshmen in his first season, keeping their redshirts and giving them a year to develop. But behind Smith is wide open and if one earns it, I would fully expect that kid to play right away.
This one is a upgrade due to time. An additional year of adding strength, an additional year of experience should allow Smith to have a productive senior season. He is the 2nd best returning back in the conference based on 2017 production and should be near the top of the Big Ten rushing leaders this year.
Where things get interesting is behind Smith. Depth is a bigger question mark as there is talent behind Smith but who knows who will emerge. You may recall that back in 2015 when Brooks was a true freshman, Smith was a redshirt freshman and with other talented backs on the roster it was Brooks who surprisingly emerged. The point is that who really knows who will be the primary back behind Smith. Ibrahim, Femi-Cole, London, Williams and Edmonds are all viable candidates and someone will earn it in August.
This unit will heavily reliant on Smith to have a season where his production is going to be a huge chunk of the offense. He is really key with a brand new quarterback under center and plenty of youth at wide receiver. He is a talented back and we should be able to enjoy his final season as he moves up the Gopher career charts.