When the Gophers open the football season Thursday night against South Dakota State, Rodney Smith and Mohamed Ibrahim will take most of the carries.
At least to start.
Coach P.J. Fleck has a plethora of running backs to choose from, and how that rotation will shake out has been a major question throughout the offseason. Smith, Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks combine to return 6,001 rushing yards, while Bryce Williams contributes another 502.
Seniors Smith and Brooks endured knee injuries last year that thrust then-freshmen Ibrahim and Williams into the No. 1 and No. 2 roles. Brooks is still recovering, but Smith is back healthy. Considering Smith is the six-year player who owns nearly 3,000 rushing yards, and Ibrahim is the breakout star from last season, their pairing makes sense.
“We feed off each other. One gives energy; the other one is going to try to respond right back at it,” Ibrahim said of the dynamic he and Smith create. “I believe that one person does good, the next person will do better, and we’re just going to keep going back and forth like that.”
While those two will play the most early, Fleck said Sunday at Athletes Village that Williams and two true freshmen are likely to make appearances as well at TCF Bank Stadium later this week. Treyson Potts and Cam Wiley might benefit from the rule where players can play in four games and still count as a redshirt.
“I’m not afraid to put them in the game,” Fleck said. “And that has nothing to do with, like, an end-of-the-game scenario. You might see them in the first, second quarter, just depending on how the game is going.”
Potts and Wiley likely won’t be the only first-year players taking advantage of those four free games. While last year Zack Annexstad was an obvious redshirt pull as starting quarterback, Fleck said there isn’t a situation like that this time.
“Being able to play a lot of people in game one’s important to me,” Fleck said. “If we feel like they can play. And I think that’s the way we’ve got to get them experience, no matter what. It doesn’t matter who you play, doesn’t matter who your opponent is or where you are. We had success with that last year. And that’s a philosophy that I want to continue to have.”
Fleck said it was too early to tell whether someone like much-heralded cornerback recruit Tyler Nubin could forgo a redshirt year. But if Nubin shows he can handle the college atmosphere, he could follow in the footsteps of someone like offensive lineman Daniel Faalele, who Fleck planned to redshirt last year but ended up not.
Fleck hasn’t made a final decision yet on his punt or kick returners for this season. But he does have choices, which he said he didn’t have a year ago.
One is safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who is back after season-ending injuries the past two seasons. The other is sophomore receiver Demetrius Douglas. Winfield returned three punts before his foot injury last year, including the first one of his career for a 76-yard score in the season opener. Douglas was the main returner for punts and kicks last year, making a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown at Wisconsin.
“They both can do it. It’s just how much do you want to put on some other people,” Fleck said. “They’ll be called up. They’re like the bullpen guys. They’ll go in there at any point go be a punt returner. And if we can do multiple punt returners, we will. If we can do multiple kick returners, we will. And that’s something that we haven’t had before. And I’m glad that we finally have that.”