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.
Bryce Williams was supposed to redshirt as a true freshman. Head coach P.J. Fleck even said as much publicly after Williams was forced into action when Rodney Smith tore his ACL and Mohamed Ibrahim was banged up early in the 2018 season. Fleck was able to rectify that last season, ensuring Williams redshirted as a sophomore while Smith, Ibrahim, and Shannon Brooks functioned as the Gophers’ “pair and a spare” at running back.
But that 2018 season gave us a preview of what Williams can do — and what he can improve on — appearing in all 13 games and finishing the year with 502 rushing yards and four touchdowns, two of which came in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin as he helped Minnesota snap their losing streak to the Badgers and re-claim Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003.
Coming out of high school, the scouting report on Williams emphasized his combination of speed and strength. He is a quick and elusive back with the power to drive through tackles and pick up yards after contact, then find an extra gear to finish the run and not get caught from behind.
And I can’t think of a better example than his 11-yard touchdown run against Purdue in 2018. Not one but two Boilermakers get their hands on Williams in the backfield and at least one of them should have dropped him for a loss, but instead he absorbs both hits and escapes to the perimeter where he can sprint down the sideline for the score:
He flashed that same ability against Wisconsin on a 23-yard touchdown run, muscling through a tackle attempt in the backfield before outracing a Badger defensive back to the end zone:
But Williams can also make plays in space and has good hands, so Minnesota utilized him in the passing game. Here against Miami (Ohio), Williams gets the screen pass on 3rd & 17, stiff arms one defender, and then blows past another to pick up 35 yards and the first down:
The area where Williams needs to improve, if he hasn’t already, is his vision. Minnesota utilizes a zone blocking scheme, which relies on the back to be able to identify the best running lane rather than aiming for a pre-determined gap. At times, Williams has lacked patience and put his head down rather than keeping his eyes up and reading his blockers.
Against Georgia Southern last season, Williams received the bulk of the carries because Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, Mohamed Ibrahim, and Cam Wiley were all sidelined at one point. It was not Williams’ best game — the Minnesota offensive line shoulders a fair share of the blame — and he finished with 14 carries for 23 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Here, on 4th & 1 at the Gophers’ 34-yard line late in the first half, is an example of what I’m talking about. Williams plows straight ahead and runs right into Sam Schlueter, oblivious to the gap to the left that is open between tight ends Jake Paulson and Ko Kieft.
Turnover on downs. He has certainly shown the ability at times to wait for a running lane to open up as a play develops, but plays like that fourth down against Georgia Southern are a bad habit he will need to kick in order to take his game to the next level.
It would be easy to overlook Williams after he spent most of last year on the sideline, but don’t sleep on him as a potential No. 2 behind Mohamed Ibrahim this season. If his overall vision improves, he has all the tools to be an impact player at running back for the Gophers.