The last time Rodney Smith and Jonathan Celestin were rolling like this, it took a team led by Deshaun Watson to stop them.
Before emerging as Gophers standouts, Smith and Celestin starred for Mundy’s Mill High School in Jonesboro, Ga.
After an 0-4 start as seniors, they led the Tigers to eight consecutive wins before losing to Watson’s team from Gainesville, Ga., in the 5A state quarterfinals. Watson is Clemson’s quarterback now.
“We made up our minds that we weren’t going to lose anymore,” Smith said. “We lost to a pretty good quarterback, so I don’t regret that season. It was fun.”
So is this: The Gophers are riding a four-game winning streak and control their own destiny in the Big Ten West race heading into Saturday night’s showdown at Nebraska. Smith is the conference’s second-leading rusher, and Celestin leads Minnesota with 64 tackles.
They’ve been best friends since middle school, and now they’re roommates in Dinkytown.
“Jon and Rodney separated themselves from the crowd; they knew what they wanted,” said Patrick Smith, a coach and athletic director at Mundy’s Mill. “Rodney also knew I was in the building, and if a teacher had to come get me, it wasn’t going to be pleasant.
“They were both 3.0 students, but Jon was 3.5. He was our scholar-athlete.”
Celestin credits his mother, Eunice, for establishing his priorities. Football always waited until he finished his homework. He still sets the tone, academically, in the apartment he shares with Smith.
“He’s the math and science guy; I’m a writer and a history guy,” Smith said. “We kind of help each other. If he needs some help with writing or history, I help him out. With science and math, I go to him.”
Smith needed the support two years ago, when he redshirted while Celestin played as a true freshman.
“It was hard,” Smith said. “I know Jon would see me sometimes kind of rundown because I wasn’t playing. And he just let me know that I was behind an NFL running back [David Cobb]. So just keep my grades up, stay eligible, and when I do get an opportunity, make the most of it.”
Smith has done that, and then some. Limited by an ankle injury last season, he still rushed for 670 yards.
Another sophomore, Shannon Brooks, appeared to have a slight edge coming into this season, but he’s missed three games with injuries.
Meanwhile, Smith has reeled off four consecutive 100-yard rushing games and six for the season. With 954 rushing yards, he trails only Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (1,055) for the Big Ten lead.
Smith also has 15 catches for 139 yards and a 94-yard kickoff return against Rutgers for a touchdown.
Celestin knew Smith had a good day at Illinois last month just looking at his white jersey, with all the blue scuff marks.
“That is a sign of taking defenders down, running through them basically,” Celestin said. “I know back in high school and rec ball, you would always look at your jersey or your helmet to see all the different team colors you had. Whoever had the most marks usually had one of the best games.”
Celestin has left some marks himself. Gophers coach Tracy Claeys nicknamed him “Thumper,” after his first college practice. Patrick Smith remembers when the budding linebacker shattered a player’s leg with a tackle in seventh grade. By the time Celestin and Smith were juniors, Patrick was the team’s offensive coordinator.
“Their junior year, we got after it,” Patrick said. “We wanted to know who could play. We turned Jon loose, and he was just raking the field from one side to the other.”
Recruiters were more focused on Smith, who had interest from Georgia, Virginia Tech and Auburn before tearing an ACL his junior year. Other schools backed off, but Gophers receivers coach Brian Anderson kept in close touch with the Smiths. They gave Anderson an earful about Mundy Mill’s other top prospect.
Celestin converted from safety to linebacker as a senior and made 139 tackles but was undersized at less than 200 pounds. Yet Celestin made 13 tackles in the Florida-Georgia All-Star Game. The Gophers were thrilled to sign Smith and Celestin as a tandem.
Since arriving on campus, Celestin has gone from 207 pounds to about 230. He spent two seasons backing up NFL-bound De’Vondre Campbell before emerging as a full-time starter this season.
He had 12 tackles against Iowa, and his determination was evident at Maryland. After missing an interception, Celestin started doing pushups, something players will do in practice but rarely in games.
“I think that’s awesome; I could have given him a big hug,” defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said.
The Gophers have come to rely on both players, just as Mundy’s Mill did. And now, the stage gets bigger, at Nebraska.
“Very excited,” Smith said. “Prime-time platform, get to show what the team has. A lot of people doubt us, so just go out and have fun with your brothers.”