Shannon Brooks stared down four Fresno State players all alone in his season debut on Saturday.
The still-recovering running back had dressed for the first two Gophers games and participated in warmups. But this was his first time officially stepping onto the field. He never touched the ball yet still had a flawless performance: Winning an important coin toss.
Brooks called tails, the Gophers took possession second, and they eventually won 38-35 in two overtimes. Coach P.J. Fleck made the unusual decision to send out only one player, a senior he knew wasn’t missing anything in the concurrent sideline huddles. The Bulldogs deployed all four captains, including quarterback Jorge Reyna.
“We had a lot of strategy to discuss. We had defensive stuff to talk about. We needed our quarterback to stay loose. We needed our quarterback to be with our offense,” Fleck said. “And so Shannon went out there.”
Brooks tore his left anterior cruciate ligament before spring practice in 2018 and appeared in one game last season before enduring a right knee injury. Fleck said Monday that Brooks is “close” to playing. In the meantime, the running back has a real knack for games of chance.
Fleck said he initially considered Brooks and senior linebacker Thomas Barber for the job but realized how Barber would need to be on the field right away if the Gophers won the toss. Brooks took his assignment seriously; college football’s overtime format improved the odds for teams whose offenses take the ball second.
The coach ran through all the coin toss scenarios and what Brooks should do in each.
“He goes, ‘All right, so let me get this straight.’ And he gave it back to me,” Fleck said. “… We went over it one more time. But he did a great job out there.”
Senior linebacker Kamal Martin made his season debut against Fresno State after sitting out the opener on a continuation of a bowl game suspension from last season for violating team rules. He led the game with 13 tackles, adding a pass breakup.
“He’s a special player,” Fleck said. “When we first got here, we watched Kamal, a converted quarterback — he was a little bit like a lost giraffe at times. He was long and can run, but it was just the instincts at linebacker weren’t there. And if there’s one guy who’s worked incredibly hard to make himself instinctual, make himself a phenomenal football player, it’s been Kamal. And we are a different defense with him on the field.”
The Gophers held Fresno State to 57 rushing yards.
Over two games combined, the Gophers in the third quarter have been outgained 310-105 in yardage and outscored 25-7, with Minnesota’s only points coming on Chris Williamson’s pick-six against South Dakota State.
Fleck, though, said he isn’t planning any changes to the halftime routine as a way to bump the second half starts.
“I don’t like to get things in our players’ heads of, well, it’s just the third quarter. It’s the whole game,” Fleck said. “We have got to start fast, accelerate in the middle and finish strong. … We have got to be able to execute from the start of the game to the end of the game and not have any holes.”