It was only a matter of time before he got this opportunity. It was recently reported that Burns had interviewed for the head coaching vacancy at Arizona State, a job that ultimately went to Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham. He has been linked to a variety of head coaching jobs in his six years at Minnesota. Until now, no one had the good sense to hire him away from the Gophers, and the running backs room at Minnesota has reaped the benefits.
Now it seems the Gophers’ good fortune has run out.
Burns, who arrived at Minnesota as running backs coach with P.J. Fleck when he was hired back in 2017, has had quite a run of success in the Twin Cities.
In his first season with the Gophers, the offense ranked 122nd in the country in total offense, but ranked 46th in rushing offense, as Rodney Smith paced the team with 977 rushing yards. The following year, once Smith was sidelined early in the year with a season-ending knee injury, Burns shepherded the development of an unheralded redshirt freshman named Mohamed Ibrahim. He finished the season with 1,160 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns.
A pair of first-team All-Big Ten wide receivers garnered all the (well-deserved) attention for Minnesota in 2019, but the running backs held their own. Smith bounced back from the previous year’s injury to lead the team with 1,163 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. Ibrahim took a backseat to the sixth-year senior, trailing him with 604 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Ibrahim put the country on notice in 2020, rushing for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in only seven games on his way to being named Big Ten Running Back of the Year.
Even with the success of the Gophers’ ground game through his first four years with the program, it was easy to take Burns’ behind-the-scenes impact for granted until the 2021 season. After Ibrahim was lost to a season-ending injury in the opener, redshirt sophomore Trey Potts stepped into the starting role and went on a tear, averaging 146.7 rushing yards per game over the next three weeks. Unfortunately, he too was felled by an ailment that ended his season prematurely.
Minnesota turned to Bryce Williams to carry the load the following week against Nebraska in a game that saw the senior rush for 127 yards, including the 56-yard game-winning score. From there, until Williams was lost to a season-ending injury against Northwestern, the Gophers leaned on a trio of running backs that included true freshmen Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving. Neither Thomas nor Irving saw action in the first game of the season, yet the pair combined for 1,523 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns by season’s end.
The way Burns managed that revolving door of running backs is nothing short of remarkable.
And in a couple weeks, Ibrahim will likely finish his final game in maroon and gold having laid claim to most of the program’s single-season and career rushing records. Burns probably won’t be coaching for the Pinstripe Bowl, but make no mistake, his impact can be seen on the field.
Whoever Fleck hires as his next running backs coach will have big shoes to fill.