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Minnesota’s running backs may have another challenging season ahead

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A key defection puts the Gophers’ running backs room in a precarious position

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 30 Minnesota at Northwestern Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Minnesota lost walk-on running back Preston Jelen to a season-ending knee injury during preseason camp last year, few could have predicted that it would be the first in a series of dominos that would fall, culminating in the Gophers being forced to enlist another walk-on — linebacker Derik LeCaptain — to provide emergency support for a depleted position group that entered the season with six healthy scholarship running backs and ended the season with two.

First it was Jelen. Then it was Mohamed Ibrahim, who in the season opener tore his Achilles tendon. Four weeks later, Trey Potts was rushed by ambulance to the hospital during the fourth quarter of a game against Purdue, struck by an undisclosed ailment that would keep him apart from the team for the rest of the season. Exactly one week after head P.J. Fleck announced that Potts would miss the rest of the season, Cam Wiley entered the transfer portal, having been passed on the depth chart by Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving. Finally, with four games left in the regular season, Bryce Williams exited the Northwestern with an ankle injury.

Thomas and Irving, who started the season at No. 5 and 6 on the depth chart, respectively, ended the year No. 1 and No. 2 on the team in rushing yards, respectively. LeCaptain, a former high school running back, scored his first career touchdown against the Wildcats.

In his postgame comments following the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, Fleck credited running backs coach Kenni Burns, but also praised the running backs room as a whole.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a unit that is so selfless,” Fleck said. “That is very difficult in the college football landscape right now. We have really good running backs.

“This year proved you need a lot of running backs.”

As of yesterday, Minnesota will have one fewer running back next season, as Ky Thomas announced his intent to transfer. It’s not every every day your leading rusher decides to transfer less than a week after earning Offensive MVP honors in your bowl game after a breakout freshman season, but the advent of the transfer portal and immediate eligibility for first-time transfers has shifted the college football landscape for better and for worse.

Thomas has yet to make public his reasons for transferring and he is under no obligation to do so, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume he saw a crowded competition for carries at Minnesota next season and opted to parlay his success this season into a role as the feature back for another Power 5 program. But upon closer inspection, the Gophers’ running back room for next year may not be as loaded as it appears, with perhaps more questions than answers.

Ibrahim was one of the best running backs in the country before he tore his Achilles tendon. Fleck was never going to turn him away once he decided to return to Minnesota for one more year, but it remains to be seen whether Ibrahim will be able to regain his pre-injury form.

In an interview with Penn Today, Kathryn O’Connor, an assistant professor clinical orthopaedic surgery at the Perelman School of Medicine, explains what makes an Achilles tear such a formidable obstacle for athletes to overcome in their bid to return to game shape:

You’ve ruptured a major tendon and even if you have it repaired, the way things heal, it’s never the original model. It’s never the same, normal, healthy tendon that it was. Even when you repair it, it still has a level of scar tissue in it that may not have the same amount of pliability to allow for the same amount of explosive activity. It may be that when it heals, it doesn’t heal with the right amount of tension. Sometimes it’s just that muscles atrophy enough that it’s just too difficult to really get the strength all the way back. But no matter what you do, the injured side is never as strong as it originally was, or really as strong as the other side because it’s just a different tendon than it was before.

There have also been studies conducted of NFL players who suffer Achilles tendon ruptures concluding that those able to return to play find their performance significantly affected.

No one is counting Ibrahim out, but he certainly has a tall task ahead of him.

The same can be said for Trey Potts. No details have been made public regarding his undisclosed ailment, but it was serious enough that he spent six nights in a hospital and did not return to the team until the bowl game. It’s not believed to be a football-related injury, and Potts has intimated on Twitter that he hopes to return to action next season. His biggest hurdle could be the university medical staff that need to medically clear him to play before he can see the field again. A recent example would be former De LaSalle basketball standout Jarvis Johnson, who was not permitted to play at Minnesota due to a heart condition. Potts could be in a similar situation.

That leaves Williams, Irving, and Zach Evans. Williams has yet to make his intentions for next year public but signs seem to point to him returning next year. He hasn’t rushed for more than 200 yards in a season since his freshman year (2018). Irving may in fact be the most invaluable member of the Gophers’ running backs room entering next season. He rushed for 699 yards and four touchdowns this season as a true freshman, and is the only healthy scholarship running back on the roster at this very moment. Minnesota signed Texas running back Zach Evans in December and he’ll be on campus and enrolled for spring practice.

The Gophers may have survived a run of bad injury luck at running back last season, but they are most definitely worse for wear in the immediate aftermath. With the concerns surrounding Ibrahim and Pott, another test of their resiliency may be in the offing next season.