When the subject of Gophers running backs comes up, immediately Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks come to mind. The Georgia natives have led Minnesota in rushing the past two seasons — Brooks in 2015, Smith in 2016 — and they have shared the No. 1 job, when healthy, throughout this first season under coach P.J. Fleck.
But now, Smith and Brooks have some company in that backfield, someone who has literally shoved aside opponents to earn more playing time.
Meet Kobe McCrary, whose play during two fill-in roles has Fleck changing a two-back rotation into a three-back timeshare beginning with Saturday’s game at Iowa.
“Kobe gives us a completely different dynamic than the others,” Fleck said.
That dynamic was on display Saturday in the Gophers’ 24-17 victory over Illinois. With Brooks out because of a leg injury suffered the week before, McCrary, a senior from Chipley, Fla., became Smith’s complement. The 6-1, 233-pounder made his presence known immediately, bursting through a big hole for a 26-yard gain to the Illinois 8-yard line. He was brought down by 180-pound Illini cornerback Nate Hobbs, but only after Hobbs was taken for a 10-yard ride.
“When Coach calls my number, I’m going in to make plays,” McCrary said. “When I go in, I’ve got to make sure at least the first guy doesn’t bring me down, and if he does, he’s going to feel it next play.”
McCrary and the Gophers kept attacking Illinois with that bruising style, and he ended up with 153 yards on 23 carries. His 4-yard touchdown run with 4:20 left in the fourth quarter — a run during which he powered through a pair of Illini defenders trying to tackle him at the goal line — gave the Gophers the lead for good at 17-10.
McCrary’s performance was similar to what he did Sept. 16 against Middle Tennessee, when he rushed 23 times for 107 yards and three TDs with Brooks out for the entire game and Smith out after halftime. McCrary ranks third on the team with 268 yards on 51 carries, behind Smith (138 for 545) and Brooks (70 for 329).
Last year, McCrary, a transfer from Butler (Kan.) Community College, rushed 39 times for 246 yards, including 176 in a victory over Indiana State. But when Big Ten season arrived, the Gophers turned to Smith and Brooks, leaving McCrary to play special teams and pick up only the occasional carry. In nine Big Ten games, he had 16 total carries — none in the final three games. His special teams play against Wisconsin was his last appearance of the 2016 season.
On Dec. 13, McCrary was among 10 Gophers suspended for roles in an alleged sexual assault in September. His suspension was recommended to be for one year Jan. 25, but on Feb. 3 he was one of four players cleared by a disciplinary panel.
“Blessed man!!!! Ready to get back at it with my boys!” McCrary tweeted at the time. On March 20, he was among five players reinstated to the team after another round of appeals.
Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca appreciates the power that McCrary brings. However, he has seen improvement in other areas, too.
“He’s always been a pretty powerful runner, but the growth I’ve seen from him from spring ball through even last week is his vision is getting better,” Ciarrocca said. “The running backs have to have reactionary skills, they have to make these decisions in a really short area in the blink of an eye. You have to have good vision and be a confident, decisive guy, and trust what you see. I think he trusts himself a little bit more.”
With Smith, Brooks and McCrary all available for the Iowa game, Fleck, Ciarrocca and running backs coach Kenni Burns have some decisions to make on how they distribute the carries.
“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.
For his part, McCrary sees himself, Smith and Brooks feeding off each other.
“We make each other better, we push each other,” he said. “During the [Illinois] game in the second half, Rod looked at me and knew I had the hot hand and said, ‘It’s on you, Big Fella.’ ”