The Gophers football team has a tough decision to make for the top running back spot heading into the 2019 season, but to head coach P.J. Fleck, it's a decision he looks forward to making.
Heading into 2019, Minnesota will have four running backs with previous college experience on its roster. Trying to find playing time for all four could provide challenges for head coach P.J. Fleck and his staff, but it is a position they are glad to be in. The four running backs at the top of the depth chart have a combined total of 6,506 career rushing yards.
“Sometimes you’re saying we’re not deep enough — that’s one position we’re deep,” Fleck said. “You can call it a plethora, you can call it depth. Those are really good words for a head coach.”
The depth will be important for the team, which is all too familiar with having an injured backfield. In the 2018 season, star running back Rodney Smith suffered a torn ACL in the second game of the season and was out for the rest of the year. Shannon Brooks, who was injured to begin the year, only appeared in one game before getting re-injured.
Both players were awarded medical redshirts to extend their college careers for another year. Smith, now a sixth-year senior, ranks seventh on the program's all-time rushing list with 2,962 yards and is within a thousand yards of being in second. Brooks, a fifth-year senior, ranks No. 15 in program history with 1,882 yards.
While Brooks and Smith were out, two newcomers were left to fill the gaps: Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams. Ibrahim racked up 1,160 yards on 202 carries last year, good for 5.7 yards per attempt and nine touchdowns. Williams averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 117 rushing attempts, giving him 502 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Williams returns this year for his sophomore season and Ibrahim returns for his redshirt sophomore season.
Fleck will likely be rotating the carries in the backfield and look to not stray too far away from how he has run the offense in the past. He also wants to turn the running backs into weapons in the receiving game, but the goal is to keep them healthy.
“I think you got to stay true to who you are,” said Fleck. “I think having our one back system, there’s probably going to be opportunities for two backs on the field at some point. We’re going to be creative in how we use them all and it will be a lot of fun to be able to do that.”
The running backs themselves, on the other hand, are not worried about how they will be used, which drew high praise from Fleck.
“One thing I love about that room is they’re incredibly selfless,” he said. “Rodney doesn’t care how many carries or yards he gets, same with Shannon, same with Mohamed, same with Bryce. It’s the selflessness they continue to show that whatever is good for the group, they’re going to do.”
Incoming freshmen running backs Cam Wiley from Las Vegas and Treyson Potts from Pennsylvania will also look to find playing time in the crowded backfield. Both were three-star high school players, according to 247 Sports. However, with the logjam in the backfield, they have a possibility to redshirt this season.
“We lose two backs in five months to graduation and then you want to have people behind them,” said Fleck when talking about abundance of running backs.
For a team that ran 524 times last year and only threw 346 passes, having depth at running back is a key part of the Gophers' success.
“Can’t have enough running backs,” Fleck said. “I look forward to really good things from those guys.”