Rodney Smith told his team back in January, and they didn't believe him.

For eight months, the Gophers running back schemed. He still plotted early last week, flipping his hood up and speeding away from Athletes Village before the media could take a good look at him.

This past Thursday in the Gophers' 28-21 win against South Dakota State, Smith finally revealed to the world his plan — and his hair.

The senior has an unmissable strip of red along the top of his head, the sides still his natural black. This avant-garde look will stick around for the season, including Saturday's trip to Fresno State. But why Smith enlisted his girlfriend's hairstylist for a makeover has more meaning than just wanting a new 'do.

"When I got hurt, it's a tough time for anybody when they get hurt," Smith said of a left ACL tear in the second game last season, also against Fresno State. "For me, I looked to cartoons."

Specifically, Sonic the Hedgehog. The two have speedy legs in common, but there's a reason why Smith's hair isn't blue. Instead, the sixth-year player identified with Shadow the Hedgehog, who is all black with a red stripe on his head.

Sonic is the popular character, but Shadow is overlooked, even though the antihero is just as fast.

"Shadow the Hedgehog is the forgotten one," Smith said. "Not that I'm forgotten, but being hurt, taking the step away from football, that was just a guide or a cartoon that I looked to, to help inspire me through my rehab process. And I just really enjoy watching him, because he was made on accident. Nobody ever really gave him a chance to be as good as Sonic."

Smith eclipsed 3,000 career rushing yards last Thursday and ranks seventh all-time for the Gophers. But he spent most of what would have been his senior year watching then-freshman Mohamed Ibrahim break out in his place.

In his first game back from the injury, Smith took most of the carries, rushing 21 times for 92 yards. While the opponents effectively stopped the rush, Smith still produced his best runs when it mattered most. His longest, a 15-yard gain, came in the decisive fourth-quarter touchdown drive that gave the Gophers the close win. He followed that up with 5- and 9-yard runs, taking the Gophers to the brink of the end zone.

"Rodney ran a little bit more assertive as the game went on," offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. "… I was pleased with him. Do I think he can be better? Absolutely. Man, we've seen some spectacular things out of No. 1."

Coach P.J. Fleck said Smith showed hesitancy on hard cuts and a distrust of his body's response as recently as the midtraining camp scrimmage. But since, Fleck said Smith has made "night and day" progress.

"He looked closer to the old Rodney," Fleck said. "… He had his burst back, and that's the biggest thing, especially the way he accelerates on contact. … They always say, it still takes a full year for everything to feel the same way, and we're right about that time for him.

"… But he looked like he was getting back to him."

Just as a redhead now.