Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
The Golden Gophers leaned toward experience by having senior Rodrick Williams as their No. 1 running back heading into this season, and that was probably the right move. But redshirt freshman Rodney Smith made an instant case for a big role, with 88 yards on 16 carries against TCU in the season opener, and he had 51 carries over the next two games.
Smith had a productive game last Saturday against Ohio, with 152 total yards (94 rushing) on 20 touches (16 carries), but true freshman Shannon Brooks also got the first substantial action of his career and produced well. Brooks scored two touchdowns against Ohio, including the game-winner late in the fourth quarter, and he finished with 82 yards on 10 carries.
It’s been awhile since the Golden Gophers had two running backs that were consistently productive as a duo, and one of those backs was in attendance last Saturday. Laurence Maroney was at TCF Bank Stadium for the homecoming contest, so feelings of nostalgia coincided with fans being able to see two running backs produce on the field during Saturday’s game.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner’s shortcomings as a passer makes a productive ground game a must for the Golden Gophers, and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover’s system is also predicated on that being the case. With two running back options that look viable now, Smith and Brooks should combine for 25-30 carries in virtually every game from here on out. Williams still has a potential role to fill, in short yardage and goal line situations, but it will take an injury for him to climb the depth chart again.
Maroney and Marion Barber III are two of the top five rushers in University of Minnesota history, second and fourth respectively, and both played in the NFL. It’s far too early to put Smith, Brooks or the two together on that same level, but if last Saturday is any indication the Golden Gophers will have a dynamic duo at running back for at least the next couple seasons.
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