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Minnesota Football 2021 Preview: Running Back Upgrade / Downgrade

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 07 Minnesota at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After Mohamed Ibrahim had one of the best rushing seasons in Gopher history (in a very shortened season), what can we expect from the Gopher ground game?

How did I do last year?

LINK

I predicted a slight downgrade after the team had to replace Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith.

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.

To be honest, I’ve never really been all that enamored with Mohamed Ibrahim. Clearly I was very wrong. I will get into that in a bit. There really is no way you can compare the 2020 to the 2019 season and not see that it was a huge upgrade. Considering the passing game took a step back, this was necessary for the offense to do what it did.

I was wrong.

2020

Starter: Mohamed Ibrahim
Depth: Cam Wiley, Treson Potts, Bryce Williams

Last fall was an unusual season for a Gopher offense under PJ Fleck. As you can see in the table below, typically the running back who has the most carries will get right around 40% of the attempts. While the team’s second leading rusher typically has about 20% of carries.

Share of carries by season

2017 2018 2019 2020
2017 2018 2019 2020
43.5% 38.5% 40.7% 67.4%
17.9% 22.3% 20.4% 9.7%

But last year was very different. Ibrahim was carrying the ball over 23 of the time. Likely because he was so damn good but also because there was just so little experience behind him.

The result was Ibrahim averaging over 2 touchdowns per game and setting destroying a Gopher record with 153 yards per game (breaking the previous record by 20 yards). Ibrahim was the Big Ten Running Back of the Year.

Behind him, Cam Wiley was 2nd on the team with only 29 carries in 7 games and 179 yards. Then Treyson Potts with 19 carries and 121 yards. Both were over a 6 yard per carry average.

2020 was most certainly the Ibrahim show and it worked.

2021

Starter: Mohamed Ibrahim
Depth: Cam Wiley, Treyson Potts, Bryce Williams, Ky Thomas, Mar’Keise Irving

This reminds me a lot of when I was writing the 2019 Quarterback Upgrade/Downgrade post. When you experience one of the best individual seasons at that position one year, can you really expect it to be the same or better the following year?

Ibrahim is the reigning Big Ten RB of the Year and he returns with an even better offensive line in front of him. This kid brings a number of elite running back traits to the table. He is decisive, he reads the holes incredibly well, he has strong legs, he is mature and intelligent. The only thing lacking, and keeping him from national recognition, is break-away speed. But all of those things listed above are repeatable and make him primed for another amazing season.

Cam Wiley, now entering his 3rd season with the program, is a big back. A big back who has really good speed. I believe he will not only be finish 2nd on the team in carries, but he will have more than just 10% of carries. While still deferring to Ibrahim, he is primed to have a break-out season of sorts.

The third back is where things get murkier. Sophomore Treyson Potts, redshirt freshman Ky Thomas and junior Bryce Williams will all be competing for carries as the team’s third back. A case can be made in paper for all three of these guys but who emerges will be determined.

Lastly is the incoming freshman, Mar’Keise Irving. One of the highest rated members of the 2021 class but considering the talent and experience ahead of him, I doubt he will play more than the 3 games allowed to still retain his redshirt.

Upgrade/Downgrade

Believe it or not, I think this will overall be an upgrade. If we are talking individually, I don’t think Ibrahim has the type of season he had last year. But collectively I think this unit is better overall.

I have no reason to think the Ibrahim, especially with an improved offensive line, will take a step back at all. His style is what it is. His maturity, strength and vision are things that will only improve. I see his carries going down and then I see Wiley being more productive with more opportunities on the field. I’m also excited to see how Potts and Thomas improve.

As a unit, I think the Gophers finish in the top 3 in the Big Ten in rushing. This group is a slight upgrade.

Poll

Are the 2021 running backs and upgrade or a downgrade?

This poll is closed

  • 78%
    UPGRADE - there is no stopping Mo and the rest
    (273 votes)
  • 20%
    NEUTRAL - a bit better here, a bit worse there
    (71 votes)
  • 1%
    DOWNGRADE - no way they can be that productive again
    (5 votes)
349 votes total Vote Now