Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have taken turns in the Gophers’ spotlight over the past two seasons, with Smith racking up bigger statistics one week and Brooks the next.
Brooks delivered more eye-popping performances last season, but Smith has played the lead role this year, including Saturday, when he electrified TCF Bank Stadium with a 94-yard kickoff return touchdown against Rutgers.
Here’s what matters most to their teammates: Neither Smith nor Brooks seems to mind when the other emerges as that day’s star.
“I think [their close friendship] definitely helps,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said Tuesday. “Because when you get tension in that kind of situation, and then you start thinking, ‘Maybe one guy is going to leave because the other guy is playing more than him’ — it’s nothing like that at all.”
Smith piled up 257 all-purpose yards against Rutgers, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. He has four 100-yard rushing games this season and ranks second in the Big Ten with 701 rushing yards, already up from last season’s 670.
But with the Gophers playing Illinois this week, it’s worth noting that Brooks had 174 rushing yards in last year’s victory over the Illini. He had touchdown runs of 75, 38 and 5 yards. That was one of three times he earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
Last year, when Brooks and Smith were freshmen, the Gophers didn’t have many games with both at full strength. Smith was slowed because of a sprained ankle and Brooks injured his shoulder.
The trend continued this August when Brooks broke a bone in his right foot, costing him the first two games. But for the past five weeks, the Gophers have had both at their disposal.
After leading the Gophers in rushing last year with 709 yards, Brooks has 413 this season, with a touchdown in all five of his games.
For the season, Smith is averaging 5.3 yards per carry and Brooks 5.1. No wonder the coaches split their workload. Against Rutgers, they had 22 carries apiece.
“There are a lot of teams, if you look around the country, that ride their best horses,” coach Tracy Claeys said. “[Smith] and Shannon Brooks have been awfully good to us.”
Claeys set a goal of getting both on the field — at the same time — and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson is making it happen.
On Minnesota’s first offensive play against Rutgers, Smith lined up at tailback, with Brooks at wide receiver. Brooks went in motion, and Leidner faked a handoff to him before passing to a wide-open Smith down the sideline for 27 yards.
It was exactly the matchup the Gophers wanted — a linebacker in pass coverage against a tailback. Smith was so open, the play probably could have gone for a touchdown.
The next play was a dive to Smith — for 6 yards. Then Brooks came in motion again from the wide receiver spot. This time, Leidner gave it to him on the jet sweep and Brooks raced 6 yards for another first down.
“I think it definitely puts pressure on defenses,” Smith said of being on the field with Brooks at the same time. “They have to defend the run and the pass, and everybody out there can make a big play.”
Smith has emerged as a bigger pass-catching threat, with 11 receptions for 110 yards. Brooks has three receptions for 24 yards.
Both have been part of the kickoff return team at different times. Smith’s 94-yard touchdown came right when the Gophers needed it, after Leidner had thrown a pick-six and Rutgers pulled within one point.
“I’m always the type of guy to try to provide a spark for anybody that needs it with a big play,” Smith said. “Whether that’s on special teams, or offense, or making a catch, it’s definitely in the back of my mind.”
One week earlier, Smith had a 70-yard run to help seal the victory at Maryland.
As for Brooks, his longest play this season was a 37-yard touchdown run at Penn State. Last year, he had six plays that went for longer than that.
So here’s a scary thought for Illinois: Smith is clicking, and Brooks is due.