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Minnesota Football: Exploring the Gophers’ options at running back for 2020

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Mohamed Ibrahim will lead a group of talented underclassmen

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

When Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks walk out the door next month, 1,294 career carries, 6,343 career rushing yards, and 49 career rushing touchdowns will be walking out the door with them. It will be a new era at running back for Minnesota. But the good news is that the Gophers have a stable of young ball carriers ready to step up and fill their shoes.

Mohamed Ibrahim

Ibrahim had a breakout season as a redshirt freshman, rushing for 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns. With Shannon Brooks sidelined ahead of the season while recovering from an ACL tear suffered during winter workouts, Ibrahim was expected to play second fiddle to Rodney Smith. But when Smith tore his ACL two games into the season, Ibrahim was thrust into the starting role. He too was banged up and missed three games due to injury, which makes his season that much more impressive. Ibrahim found his footing against Ohio State — 23 carries for 157 rushing yards and two touchdowns — and only gathered steam from there.

His carries were cut in half as a redshirt sophomore, as Smith largely functioned as the featured back. Ibrahim finished the regular season with 464 rushing yards and six touchdowns. But I expect him to be the bell cow next year as part of head coach P.J. Fleck’s “pair and a spare.”

Bryce Williams

Williams was forced into action as a true freshman in 2018, when the Gophers were without both Smith and Brooks. He largely served as a change-of-pace back behind Ibrahim, but acquitted himself well nonetheless, rushing for 502 yards and four touchdowns. The highlight of his freshman season was undoubtedly the pair of fourth quarter touchdowns he scored at Wisconsin to effectively put the game out of reach for the Badgers. The coaching staff made a point to redshirt Williams this season, limiting his participation to two games.

Whereas Ibrahim thrives between the tackles, Williams is much more comfortable attacking the edge. He has flashed the ability to break tackles and make defenders miss in the open field. I wouldn’t be surprised if Williams is occasionally utilized in the passing game either, as he has shown he can slip out of the backfield and be a reliable checkdown.

Cam Wiley

Cam Wiley is the one to watch, in my opinion. Listed at 6’2”, 215 lbs., he is the largest running back on the roster. Fleck has described him as a physical back with off-the-charts athleticism and a unique running style. His frame fits his style of play, as he fights through arm tackles and picks up a high volume of yards after contact. But Wiley also possesses impressive burst and acceleration, making for a formidable combination of size and speed.

He was a steal on the recruiting trail for Fleck and co., having flown under the radar because he was forced to sit out his junior season after transferring high schools. It’s clear they are very high on his potential, as he redshirted but saw action against Georgia Southern and was utilized late in the season as an added wrinkle on kickoff returns.

Cam Wiley rushing against Georgia Southern

While that game experience may prove invaluable farther down the road, it came at a cost: Wiley left the Wisconsin game with an undisclosed injury and appeared on the sideline on crutches and with a left knee brace. Hopefully it was not serious.

Treyson Potts

Potts is another true freshman running back who redshirted this season, although he did see action against Rutgers and Maryland and scored his first career touchdown against the Terps. I wouldn’t expect Potts to be an every-down back, but because of his ability to make plays in space, he possesses a unique versatility. Don’t be surprised if offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca utilizes him in bubble and flare screens or even flexes him out to slot receiver.

Treyson Potts rushing against Maryland

Jason Williamson

Williamson redshirted this season but did not see the field after tearing his ACL in spring practice. The Owatonna native and former Mr. Football rushed for 3,012 yards and 46 rushing touchdowns as a high school senior. Williamson is a great athlete, with good speed, footwork, and elusiveness. He is also a physical back with the strength to run through arm tackles. Some believe he is destined for the defensive side of the ball when all is said and done, but for now he will be competing for carries at running back until further notice.

Ky Thomas

Barring a surprise on Signing Day, Thomas will be a true freshman at Minnesota next season. Even if he doesn’t see the field in 2020, I expect he’ll be in the backfield soon enough. As a high school senior, Thomas rushed for 3,009 yards and 35 touchdowns en route to a state semifinal finish. He was named the Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year and finished his high school career ranked second all-time in Kansas history with 7,703 career rushing yards.

As far as his style of play, I’ve seen at least one comparison to Shannon Brooks. Thomas possesses good vision and balance, but what sets him apart as a runner is his lower body strength. Because of his compact build, defenders seem to underestimate his strength and shiftiness, making it a challenge for them to bring him down.

Poll

Who will be the Gophers’ leading rusher in 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 80%
    Mohamed Ibrahim
    (767 votes)
  • 2%
    Bryce Williams
    (26 votes)
  • 11%
    Cam Wiley
    (107 votes)
  • 0%
    Treyson Potts
    (4 votes)
  • 2%
    Jason Williamson
    (26 votes)
  • 2%
    Ky Thomas
    (22 votes)
952 votes total Vote Now