Much like he enters every football season, Rodney Smith was the favorite.

On the field, his nearly 3,000 rushing yards with the Gophers make him a no-brainer for carries. And for the past several summers on running backs coach Kenni Burns’ patio, Smith has been the pitmaster.

Smith’s ribs won the Running Back Top Chef Grill Off Competition in 2017 and 2018. A three-peat last month seemed inevitable.

So when Burns announced the panel of judges — his wife, daughter and father-in-law — had picked a teammate’s barbecue salmon dish as the winner, leaving Smith three points from the title, the Georgia native couldn’t believe it.

“The shock on his face when he was defeated was … ,” Burns said, dissolving into giggles at the memory. “… He was devastated. I mean, ready to cry. It was his last one, and he didn’t win.”

His collegiate grilling career ended in upset, but Smith and the rest of the running backs are determined to make this a Gophers season to remember. They open Thursday night against South Dakota State with one of the most stacked offenses in recent memory. A receiving corps with NFL-caliber talent, tight ends poised to do more than just block, an offensive line that displays stunning size and heft.

But it all circles back to the running backs, the Gophers’ traditional strength. Smith returns from a knee injury for a final year. His backup-turned-breakout performer from last season, sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim, is coming off a 224-yard rushing game in the Quick Lane Bowl.

Shannon Brooks, another senior who made just a brief cameo last season thanks to injuries, isn’t recovered enough for the opener but should start building on his 1,882 career rushing yards later this fall.

Add sophomore Bryce Williams, who rushed for 141 yards against Miami (Ohio) last season, along with two hyped true freshmen — Treyson Potts and Cam Wiley — and this incarnation of the Gophers backfield is loaded with depth.

One of the most popular questions this offseason has been how coach P.J. Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca will divide the carries among their army of running backs and keep everyone happy. It sounds like an intriguing drama to everyone except the guys in the room.

“We are the tightest-knit group on the team,” Smith said. “We truly have a bond that, off the football field, you can see we’re there for each other. Off the field, when things go on, injuries, we’re all there. Surgeries, we all show up. Just to make sure that we’re taken care of.”

Selfless > selfish

Smith might take his grilling losses pretty hard, but he was the opposite when it came to watching Ibrahim break out in his stead. Ibrahim said Smith “never took a back seat” as the leader of the running backs last season, even as the senior recovered from reconstructive left knee surgery.

Smith, 23, had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee as a junior at Mundy’s Mill High School. Then last September, just three offensive plays into the second game of the season against Fresno State, he tore his left ACL. He had surgery again and went right back to work rehabbing and mentoring teammates.

Smith would meet with Ibrahim every Monday to go through the game plan, Burns said, answering any of Ibrahim’s questions. Fleck had Smith travel to every game, so he was even on the sidelines to pump up the young running backs pregame if they lacked energy.

“I got to experience the season through a different lens, having to step back and coach up the younger guys,” Smith said. “Being that role model figure for those guys, despite not playing. Making sure that we had the right practice habits throughout the whole season, watch film, stay on top of things.”

With Smith setting the tone, the running backs have developed deep friendships that make for a selfless group. No harsh feelings, “it’s always love,” according to Ibrahim.

Because of injuries to two senior running backs early last season, Ibrahim quickly went from an unknown to the team’s go-to tailback, finishing with 202 carries for 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns. He credited lessons from Smith and Brooks for much of his success.

Now that there’s a logjam at the top again, Smith and Ibrahim both preach how having depth at running back is a strength, not a threat.

“Everybody’s going to be fresh,” Ibrahim said. “We might go 20 yards, and then somebody else comes in and does another 20 yards, and nobody will be tired. And I think we can use that as a weapon.”

Quarterback Tanner Morgan said Ibrahim jokes that coach P.J. Fleck’s Row the Boat mantra has an alternative meaning: RTB, Run the Ball.

“The hardest part will probably be coach Ciarrocca just calling the plays,” Ibrahim said of offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, “and making sure everybody gets the ball.”

Smith and Ibrahim went into last season knowing they’d be No. 1 and No. 2, as Brooks still was recovering from injury. In the one game they played together, the opener against New Mexico State, Smith took 24 carries for 153 yards, and Ibrahim made nine runs for 101 yards.

The Gophers were excited to see what that duo could do together all season, but then Smith got hurt. Now, they have that same chance again, with hope that Brooks will be fully healthy soon to bring fresh legs and the experience of 358 career carries into the equation.

Older and wiser

The nickname Grandpa isn’t exactly flattering. Let alone Great Grandpa.

And yet, that has become Smith’s moniker. This is his sixth season since former Gophers coach Jerry Kill recruited him. He redshirted in 2014 and took a medical redshirt last season because of the knee injury. In between, he has played in 39 career games, carrying the ball 651 times for 2,959 yards.

Sometimes, Ibrahim will joke that Smith has been around the program for a dozen years. He’s fond of teasing his mentor, tapping him on the shoulder during every new drill to ask, “This new for you?” The “old man” at the end is heavily implied.

But Smith as the wizened elder has only benefited his position group. Besides Brooks, all six of the other backs are underclassmen. They have picked up Smith’s bookworm tendencies, whether that be studying up on the playbook or researching how to improve their grilling.

“We want to be the group on the team that people look to when they need to spark,” Smith said. “… Even if we’re not getting the ball. Even if we’re not having a game. We want to be infectious and contagious and spread how we’re feeling throughout the entire team.”

Much how Smith ceded the barbecue championship to his younger teammates this season, he’ll have to eventually do the same on the field.

But his room of protégés won’t let their leader just fade away. Ibrahim especially.

“If you ask Mo now what his ‘why’ is, why he wants to have an elite year this year,” Burns said, “it’s really to make sure Rodney goes out with a bang, and he gets everything that he ever wanted being here.”