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2020 Minnesota Gopher Football Preview: Upgrade or downgrade at running Back?

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Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have left, can 2020 possibly be an upgrade at running back?

Minnesota beats Auburn in the Outback Bowl Photo by Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via Getty Images

It seems like Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks were Golden Gophers for the last decade. Technically it was just 6 years as a part of the program for Smith and 5 for Brooks. But 2020 was their final season of eligibility. Now Smith is competing for a job with the Carolina Panthers and Brooks is moving with this life after earning his degree.

After losing a couple of talented backs who combined for 6,179 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns, is this unit going to be able to maintain or even increase production?

2019

Starter: Rodney Smith & Mohamed Ibrahim & Shannon Brooks
Depth: Bryce Williams, Cam Wiley

During the 2019 season Rodney Smith moved himself into 2nd place on the all-time Gopher rushing list and Brooks was within 200 yards of also being in the top 10. And Ibrahim is not to be ignored here as well. Ibrahim stepped in when all running backs were injured in 2018 to rush for over 1,100 yards and was the team’s 2nd leading rusher in 2019.

2019 really felt like an offense that heavily relied upon the passing game while the ground game took a step back from the prior year. But in reality there was an increase in rushing attempts while decreasing passing attempts. The production, terms of rushing average, was largely the same and just 2 additional rushing touchdowns. The key was that all three backs were largely healthy and the two healthy true freshmen were allowed to redshirt.

2020

Starter: Mohamed Ibrahim
Depth: Bryce Williams, Cam Wiley, Treyson Potts, Ky Thomas

Moving into 2020, this group is interesting. For the first time in a while we have some question marks at running back. What seems clear is that Ibrahim will be the guy who begins the season as the starter. As the only back with significant experience, he’s going to be the guy initially; probably throughout.

Then we get to the question marks. We aren’t exactly sure who will get the carries behind Ibrahim but I know two things.

One, there will be two guys needed after Ibrahim. Fleck is a fan of the “pair and a spare” approach to running backs. Two guy will split up around 300 carries with a third guy ready when needed.

Bryce Williams is next on the depth chart based on age/experience. Williams ended up as the 2nd leading rusher in yards and attempts as a true freshman and then participated in just 2 games last year to regain redshirt status. Williams looked good at times, as a freshman. And the knock was mostly that he needed to add lower-body strength before he’d be ready to breakout in the Big Ten. Two years later, he should be much stronger and ready to handle 100+ carries.

But then we get to the young guys, the guys who just may end up being the most talented of the bunch and become the team’s primary rusher. Who will that be? Glad you asked.

Cam Wiley is intriguing to me. As soon as they could get Wiley on to the field, while still retaining his redshirt, they did. He played early, against Georgia Southern. But then he was thrust into the Iowa game, returning kicks, knowing he could play the rest of the schedule without losing that redshirt. Why was a true freshman thrown into such a key game for the Gophers? Perhaps because the staff really likes what he brings to the field. Perhaps they see big things for his future. And perhaps that begins to be seen in 2020.

Treyson Potts played some as a true freshman as well. His highlight came in the Maryland blowout with a 24-yard run. I’d bet he is third or fourth on the depth chart, but I’m just speculating.

Then we get to Ky Thomas, the incoming freshman who blew up in high school. The Kansas native had an incredible high school career and very well may turn into a dynamic college back. There is a ton of reason to be excited about this kid.

Jason Williamson will also be in the mix. After missing his freshman season with an injury there is very little known about the Owatonna kid. But assuming full health, he’ll also be given opportunity to be in the mix.

Upgrade / Downgrade

My esteemed colleague is very high on the Gopher running backs for 2020. I’m not as convinced. Am I optimistic about this group? I am. I think Wiley and Thomas could end up being elite backs for this Gopher offense.

I think there is some talent with the young backs and the best thing they have going for them this year is that the offensive line should be elite. But as I sit here today, I just don’t have enough, other than being hopeful, to think that this unit is going to be better than it was 2019.

It is really hard to replace the experience you had with Smith and Brooks. Ibrahim, and his 316 career carries will help. But I I think this will be a slight downgrade from 2019 with an opportunity for this unit to be elite in 2021.

Poll

Will 2020 be an upgrade or a downgrade at running back?

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    UPGRADE - These young guys + Ibrahim are going to be incredible
    (94 votes)
  • 54%
    NEUTRAL - Expect another 2,300 yards and 25 touchdowns...again
    (175 votes)
  • 16%
    DOWNGRADE - Good luck replacing Smith and Brooks
    (55 votes)
324 votes total Vote Now