P.J. Fleck couldn’t decide on a quarterback in fall camp so he named co-starters and put the word “OR” between their names on his first depth chart.
The Gophers quarterback situation remains fluid, and worrisome, heading into the season opener Thursday night.
Depth along their offensive line is thinner than dental floss, also worrisome. Fleck also has mentioned numerous times the lack of returning production at wide receiver, which potentially is worrisome.
Know what’s not worrisome? The law firm of Smith & Brooks in the backfield.
Fleck placed an “OR” between Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks on the depth chart, too, but there’s certainly no consternation about that. Many Power Five programs would love to showcase that kind of firepower in the running game.
Their tag-team duo combined for 1,808 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns last season, marks they should exceed this season.
Former Gophers coach Glen Mason coined the phrase “pair and a spare” in describing his ideal running back setup. The Gophers current pair is dynamic and their spare — bulldozer Kobe McCrary — isn’t a bad third option, either.
The Gophers went 9-1 last season when Smith scored a touchdown, 6-1 when Brooks reached the end zone. They are 5-0 when Smith and Brooks score in the same game.
The Gophers’ approach on offense isn’t going to fool anyone. Nor should it.
“If we think we’re just going to say, ‘We have Rodney and Shannon, and everybody can relax and we’re going to score 55 points a game because we have those two,’ I think we’re crazy,” Fleck said. “Everybody’s going to have to be involved in this offense.”
Most teams strive for some semblance of balance. Nobody is suggesting they mimic that goofy game plan the Gophers employed against San Jose State in 2014. Remember that throwback (or throw little) performance?
Forced to play Chris Streveler because of an injury to Mitch Leidner, the Gophers attempted only seven passes and completed one, which came with 6½ minutes left in the game. Their run-pass ratio that day was 58-7.
Such an approach might work against weaker teams, but the Gophers will need a competent passing game to contend in the Big Ten.
Yet their offense has a definite focal point and leaning heavily on Smith & Brooks makes sense. Sure, teams will gear their defenses toward the run. But the Gophers passing game didn’t exactly strike fear in opponents last season, yet Smith & Brooks found ways to be productive.
“They can make people miss and run people over, I get that,” Fleck said. “But there’s only so many hits you can take. We’re going to have to have people around them make plays.”
Fleck’s message is understandable. Two guys can’t carry an entire offense. But he’s also quick to praise his two running backs as proven difference-makers.
Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney set the gold standard for running back tandems in program lore. Those two became the first tandem in NCAA history to rush for 1,000 yards each in more than one season from 2003-04.
Barring injury, Smith & Brooks have a realistic shot to reach 1,000 yards separately. Smith accomplished it last season with 1,158 yards. Brooks finished with 650 yards despite missing three games because of injury.
Their styles and personalities complement each other well. Smith runs so smooth and instinctively. Brooks runs angry, taking handoffs like he just found a parking ticket on his windshield.
Smith has produced seven 100-yard rushing games in his career. Brooks has a knack for big plays, averaging 24.9 yards on his 12 career touchdowns.
“We have a lot of trust and belief in our teammates and what they can do,” Brooks said. “We have a lot of guys that can make plays as well.”
That’s to be determined. For now, options 1 and 1A are a nice place to start.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org