Saturday won't be the first time Gophers freshman Mar'Keise "Bucky" Irving has been thrust into a crucial role as a youngster playing alongside veteran teammates.
Irving was given a big chance as a sophomore on a senior-dominated team at Hillcrest High School, in the Chicago suburbs. The running back announced his presence by rushing for 303 yards and three touchdowns in a win over rival Lemont.
"Right then and there,'' said Morgan Weaver, the Hawks coach at the time, "I knew he was going to be a special talent and was going to do some big things.''
Fast forward three years, and now it looks to be P.J. Fleck's turn to see what Irving can do in a featured role.
When the Gophers face Nebraska on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium, they'll do so with their top two running backs, Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts, lost for the season because of injuries. The "pair and a spare'' running back approach popularized by former Gophers coach Glen Mason and embraced by Fleck will be put to the test, and Irving, a true freshman, would appear to be the next man up.
Though both Fleck and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. emphasized that the Gophers will use a committee approach that also includes redshirt freshman Ky Thomas, redshirt sophomore Cam Wiley and redshirt junior Bryce Williams, Irving ascended to the complementary role behind Potts after Ibrahim was lost for the season.
"He's a very, very talented player,'' Fleck said of the 5-10, 190-pound Irving. "He hasn't really played a ton yet, and he's still learning. I believe in him 100 percent, and you're going to see a heavy dose of him.''
Of the Gophers' healthy running backs, Irving leads the team with 112 yards on 25 carries, with 89 yards coming in the 30-0 victory at Colorado. He also had a momentum-flipping 41-yard kickoff return in the win over Miami (Ohio).
That Irving has contributed in a variety of ways to the Gophers doesn't surprise Weaver, who used the gifted athlete from Chicago at running back, receiver, wildcat quarterback and cornerback at Hillcrest, which plays football in the fifth of eight classes in Illinois.
"Just putting the ball in his hands solved a lot of problems,'' Weaver said.
Don Houston would agree. Houston is Hillcrest's basketball coach, and he relied heavily on Irving, a three-year starting point guard on a team that included two Division I basketball prospects. Irving led the Hawks in scoring as a junior, and Houston counted on him to do the dirty work, too.
"He brought a football mentality to the basketball court,'' Houston said. "We would put him on the other team's best player, and he would play that guy like he was playing football. It would be a rough night for anyone's best player.''
As good as Irving was as a basketball player, "he knew where his bread and butter would be,'' Houston said, and the football recruiters came calling to Hillcrest, located in Country Club Hills, about 25 miles south of downtown Chicago.
The four-star recruit was the ninth-ranked running back in the nation in the recruiting Class of 2021 by Rivals.com and the No. 3 overall prospect in Illinois by 247Sports. Seven other Big Ten schools, including Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan, offered him scholarships.
The Gophers offered Irving a scholarship in May 2019, on the same day his grandmother died. "That meant a lot to him,'' Weaver said. "He felt the love. He felt wanted at Minnesota.''
Learning on the fly
As a freshman with the Gophers, Irving has had his growing pains, as evidenced by his combined 10 carries for 23 yards in the past two games. Sanford sees the youngster working through it.
"He had early success, then it was his opportunity to get more and more in the game plan,'' Sanford said. "He got overwhelmed. I think he got overwhelmed just being a freshman, a college kid for the first time.''
The Gophers generally do not make freshmen available for interviews, so Irving was not available to comment.
The bye week came at a good time for both Irving and a team trying to fill a hole in the backfield while also attempting to jump-start a sputtering passing attack.
"He's practicing at a really high level," Sanford said.
Wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, a native of Kankakee, Ill., quickly bonded with the fellow Illinoisan.
"That's my guy. I've known Bucky for a while,'' Autman-Bell said. "I followed him when he was back in high school. He brings a lot of energy to the team. … He's a kid that came from nothing and just loves playing football.''
Irving's personality has rubbed off on his teammates, but they've taken to calling him "Bucko'' instead of his childhood nickname of "Bucky,'' not wanting to associate anyone with Wisconsin's mascot.
Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan sees Irving as a poised player who's been a quick study since joining the team this summer.
"Obviously, he doesn't have a ton of experience, but that doesn't really matter,'' Morgan said. "… He's [performed well] in training camp, he's done that in the season when his number's been called, and we just continue to expect him to do the same thing.''
That could be as part of a committee, as Fleck and Sanford suggest, or it could be with Irving seizing a bigger piece of the offense.
"He's the guy for us,'' Autman-Bell said. "He's going to be amazing for us this week.''