This week at The Daily Gopher, we are paying a visit to Minnesota’s running back room and taking a closer look at the candidates to be key contributors in the #GopherGroundGame.
Rodney Smith and Shannon Books — a combined 1,294 career carries, 6,343 career rushing yards, and 49 career rushing touchdowns — are gone, signaling a changing of the guard. The good news is that Mohamed Ibrahim, with one 1,000-yard rushing season under his belt as a redshirt freshman, returns to lead a pack of young running backs.
Ibrahim’s breakout game was against Ohio State as a redshirt freshman. He rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. That was the same game that the Gophers decided to make a change at right tackle, giving true freshman Daniel Faalele the starting nod over a struggling Sam Schlueter. The stars seemed to align for Ibrahim and the Minnesota Movers, as both had their best game of the season up to that point.
“Let the game come to you” can be tough advice for a freshman to heed. Patience is a virtue that more than a few underclassmen lack when they see their first game action, leading them to try to do too much and force plays. Ibrahim impressed against Ohio State because it was clear the game was starting to slow down for him, as shown here on a 25-yard run:
The Gophers are running inside zone on 3rd & 3 at their own 32-yard line, and Ibrahim shows patience as the play develops and the linemen make their blocks. He follows the center and left guard, the latter of whom comes off a double team to block a linebacker who would otherwise have had an unimpeded path to Ibrahim. With the back-side of the play blocked as well, Ibrahim is to able to find the hole and plant his left foot in the ground to get vertical.
Ibrahim is not an elusive back and his speed is nothing to write home about, but he is a natural fit for the inside zone because of his good contact balance and lower center of gravity at the point of attack. That skill set becomes especially lethal when a back can press the line of scrimmage, show patience as the play develops, and make the proper read.
Against Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl, Ibrahim gashed the Yellow Jackets for a career-high 224 rushing yards and two touchdowns. And it was because of plays like this 14-yard:
Georgia Tech stunts a defensive lineman into the gap where the Gophers are trying to run, but Ibrahim makes a quick read and cuts right behind a wall of blockers. He runs through an arm tackle, slips through a defender trying to wrap him up, and then spins away from a defensive back coming at him with a shoulder tackle. Part of the problem for defenders is that he is built lower to the ground, and that lower center of gravity helps him bounce off of potential tacklers. But Ibrahim is also a back who does not shy away from physicality.
That type of physical back can be an asset to an offense that emphasizes time of possession. Under previous offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, time of possession was a point of pride, and Minnesota ranked fourth nationally in that category. And when I think of the Gophers winning the time of possession battle, I think back to 16-play, 68-yard drive that chewed up the final 8 minutes and 38 seconds of the Outback Bowl against Auburn. Ibrahim was a big part of that.
Against the Tigers’ 20th-ranked rushing defense, Ibrahim rushed for 140 yards on 20 carries, with one touchdown. It was an impressive performance for both him and the Minnesota Movers, who had to handle one of the biggest defensive fronts they had seen all season. But the Gophers’ blockers were up to the task. On 3rd & 10 late in that final drive, Minnesota ran outside zone and turned all but two of their players into a wall of blockers. Ko Kieft, Bryce Witham, and Tyler Johnson all make key blocks on this play, but it is Ibrahim who has stretch it to the perimeter and turn upfield at the first opportunity, plowing into a couple Auburn defenders to get the first down:
Ibrahim is not the flashiest or most explosive running back in the Big Ten, but he is a physical runner with good vision who can thrive in a zone blocking scheme and gash defenses for yards to extend drives. We already know he can pile up yards after rushing for 1,160 as a redshirt freshman, and I’m excited to see what he can do as the Gophers’ primary ball carrier again.