When it comes to the running back rotation, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck plays it by ear.
With three starting-caliber backs in Rodney Smith, Mohamed Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks all healthy for the first time against Nebraska, the coach — along with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and position coach Kenni Burns — split the carries fairly evenly between the trio.
Fleck explained after that game that he aims to help his players establish a rhythm without overworking them. That philosophy was on display this past Saturday at Rutgers. Smith ended with 111 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns, and Ibrahim followed up with 62 yards on 15 carries, plus a score. But Brooks didn’t make any carries in the second half, finishing with just 15 yards on five attempts.
The decision to curb Brooks’ involvement was a product of listening to the player himself, Fleck said.
“There are times when somebody feels very good, and sometimes a hit does something to somebody, and you feel it, and you know it,” Fleck said, adding that all the backs are healthy. “… That is why we kind of rotated Rodney and Mohamed. And plus, [Brooks is] the one closest to coming out of surgery. And when we got to a point where we felt like we had the game in control, the first one to not take those carries was the one that was closest to a surgery.”
Brooks and Smith both returned this season after season-ending knee injuries last year, though Smith always has been further along in the recovery process.
At the end of the 42-7 win at Rutgers, Fleck inserted freshman quarterback Cole Kramer and freshman running back Treyson Potts, the first game action for both.
Fleck said he hopes to redshirt both, along with freshman running back Cam Wiley and sophomore running back Bryce Williams, who each already have played this season. For the latter two, Fleck said he wants to ensure the next time those two play is a scenario where they either need to play them or it’s a luxury, and the Rutgers game wasn’t the right situation to “waste snaps.”
“Trey Potts didn’t take one snap, hasn’t taken one snap with the varsity this year, besides in training camp. He’s been on scout team the entire time, but we felt like it was a great time to get him his first game, his first experience,” Fleck said. “Cole Kramer, same way.”
The coach said he hoped to have two or three possessions to end the game as a way to also cycle in fellow freshman quarterback Jacob Clark, but it didn’t happen. But the next opportunity, Clark is first in line to make an appearance, Fleck said.
Freshman kicker Michael Lantz is now seven games into his first year and has made four of seven field-goal attempts. He’s also missed two of his 33 point-after attempts.
Fleck said Lantz has been what he expected.
“Very difficult to come into that role,” Fleck said, adding Lantz also only arrived on campus this past summer instead of as an early enrollee. “… He’s had some really big kicks, too. He had a great kick at Fresno State [to force overtime]. He doesn’t make that one, we’re not even talking about what we’re talking about these days. He’s also had some ones he probably would want back. It’s a typical year for a true freshman at kicker.”