Following the Gophers football team’s 24-17 victory over Illinois, coach P.J. Fleck was asked how he will divide the carries among his top three running backs.
“Juggling two … balls is easy,” Fleck said Saturday. “When you throw a third one in there, that’s where it gets a little more difficult.”
That third one thrown in there — senior Kobe McCrary — rushed 24 times for 153 yards against Illinois, taking over the game in the second half. He filled in for Shannon Brooks, who missed the game because of a leg injury, and complemented Rodney Smith, who ran for 103 yards before suffering a head injury late in the fourth quarter.
On Monday, Fleck said both Smith and Brooks are expected to play Saturday at Iowa, leaving the Gophers with a good problem to have.
“We have a three-headed monster right now, and I think that Kobe has proven that,” Fleck said.
Smith, the Gophers’ leading rusher with 545 yards this season, uses great vision, as he showed with a cutback 7-yard run on third-and-5 from the Illinois 14 on Minnesota’s go-ahead, fourth-quarter drive. Brooks, who ranks second on the team with 329 yards and has rushed for team-best five touchdowns, brings power with his speed. And McCrary, at 6-1 and 240 pounds, delivers brute force and an ability to run over opponents.
With those three, Fleck has options. In days of college football yore, you might have seen that trio in a wishbone offense.
“They are the best players on our football team, so you are going to see, maybe, some different things that you didn’t see last week,” Fleck said.
Part of the reliance on the running backs stems from Minnesota’s struggles at quarterback. Demry Croft got his first start against Illinois, taking over for Conor Rhoda, but completed only five of 15 passes for 47 yards and threw two interceptions. Fleck didn’t announce his starting QB on Monday but pointed toward Croft remaining in that role.
“Let’s now see how you respond to it, and I think nobody deserves to be just given up on after one bad game,” Fleck said.
Fleck’s theme for improvement for the entire team focused on executing plays more consistently, but it’s most important for the person who takes the snap from center. “Everything starts there,” he said. “I’ve got to coach it better. I’ve got to make sure to put them in positions to be successful.”
Making an impression
With Antonio Shenault out injured, redshirt freshman Drew Hmielewski made his debut as punt returner. The Marshall, Minn., native showed both jitters and talent, finishing with two returns for 21 yards.
What did Fleck see from Hmielewski, who moonlights as an outfielder on the Gophers baseball team?
“He’s gonna catch the ball,” the coach said, laughing. “I was very happy with that. Again, another freshman. Maybe a little anxious like the rest of them.
“On one [return], he has a huge hole and who knows what happens. He kind of trips over his own feet. I said, ‘Hey, would you do that stealing second?’ No. ‘Well, why would you do it when you catch a punt? Relax.’ It was fun on the sideline to get him to smile after that. … I thought he did a really nice job, and we might even keep him back there.”
• The Gophers’ Nov. 4 game at Michigan will be a 6:30 p.m. Central start and will air on Ch. 9.
• Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell, the Big Ten’s leading tackler, missed last week’s game against Northwestern because of a shoulder injury, but there’s “a good chance” he will play against the Gophers, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said.