Minnesota’s running game has looked different from early last season when sophomore Shannon Brooks was coping with an injury.
With 85 rushing yards and a touchdown, Brooks is now back on the ground and impressed with his season debut last week.
“I was worried that he was going to be a little too excited to get out there because he is, he was,” said offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. “I think he did a great job and kind of slowed things down a little bit and a lot of that sometimes takes a little tune up because of footwork and things of that nature, but overall he did some good things.” Brooks’ 85 yards in the game against Colorado State is the fourth-highest total of his collegiate career. He said his ankle is feeling great after the game and several practices.
“Just like how I expected, just keep doing light therapy on it,” Brooks said. “Not really much you can do [because] the bone is healed. After playing, it felt great Sunday. We have a little small practice Sunday. I ran on it after the game, felt amazing. These last few days of practice it felt great running on it, too.”
One of the more significant stats Brooks put up in his first game back was 13 carries. The mark against the Rams was more than he had in six of his games last year. Redshirt sophomore Rodney Smith still led the team in carries with 17 on the day.
“They’re both awfully good, so it doesn’t matter which way it ends up,” said head coach Tracy Claeys. “Rodney doesn’t get the credit for as tough a runner as he is — he’s awfully tough also. And Shannon showed he’s awfully good. We’ve got a great pair of those guys.”
Minnesota currently has a good problem when it comes to its running game.
Three different running backs have rushed for at least 80 yards this year. Brooks is the leading rusher from last year, but Smith currently leads the team in yards for this season.
Johnson said he is not opposed to using different sets to utilize the three healthy running backs.
“We’ve always flirted with [two backs on the field] and I think it depends on the makeup of the game and what we are looking to do,” Johnson said. “Obviously those guys are talented and when they touch the ball, they do some good things. We’ve flirted with it and I think it’s a wait and see.”
The three running backs have opened up holes for redshirt senior quarterback Mitch Leidner in the option game. Leidner has three rushing touchdowns so far. Leidner’s rushing touchdown last game was on a read option where he faked the handoff.
“Yeah, you can see their confidence, you can see their leadership that they bring to practice,” Leidner said. “I know those are guys that can pick up a huddle and give the O-line a lot of credit and make those guys feel good every single day when they’re out there hitting people nonstop.”
Minnesota’s next game is its first in the Big Ten slate at Penn State. The entire Nittany Lions’ starting linebacker core is injured. Minnesota will likely go to the ground game on an injured Big Ten opponent.
“I know that when you watch them on film, they play hard and they have had some injury difficulties at certain positions,” Johnson said. “You look at those guys up front and they bring a physical brand of football and play hard. This day and age, you have to be ready to go. We’ve got to improve upon things in order for us to perform well. That’s what we are trying to get accomplished this week.”