Looking back now, Rodrick Williams Jr. admits he wasn't ready the last time the Gophers made him their No. 1 tailback.
Williams started five consecutive football games as a sophomore in 2013, before David Cobb became Hercules. Williams had his moments but struggled to find consistency.
"I was still a little on the immature side, so I needed time to grow up," Williams said. "I was still late to class sometimes. I missed some plays because I might not be completely focused inside the meeting room, stuff like that."
Now that Cobb is in the NFL, Williams has another chance and is determined not to waste it. The senior from Texas is expected to be the starter Sept. 3, when the Gophers open against TCU, but Williams has two young running backs from Georgia nipping at his heels.
Redshirt freshman Rodney Smith appears to be second on the depth chart, or perhaps 1B to Williams' 1A. Coach Jerry Kill has also said another Georgian, Shannon Brooks, will play as a true freshman.
Redshirt sophomore Berkley Edwards added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason, hoping for his own chance, but the sophomore sprained an ankle during training camp, adding to his list of injury setbacks.
Heavily recruited Jeff Jones, a redshirt freshman, was moved to receiver this spring — a sign of how confident the Gophers are in these running backs.
"You've got guys like Rodrick [Williams] and Rodney [Smith] really leading the way right now," quarterback Mitch Leidner said. "Those young guys look at them and think, 'I want to run as hard as Rodrick does.' And then you look at Shannon, he's running like Rodrick."
Kill said the light has come on for Williams, much as it did for Cobb. The most notable change has been to Williams' physique.
His weight ballooned to 250 pounds before he revamped his diet, taming his love for fast food. He now weighs about 229.
"Looking back at the film now, I'm definitely a lot quicker than I was," he said. "I don't know if I could have lasted 20-30 carries [per game] with how I felt. I feel like I can do it now."
Williams got limited carries last season but turned into a clutch pinch hitter. When Cobb pulled his hamstring at Nebraska, Williams got the ball late in the third quarter on fourth-and-1 and delivered a crucial 19-yard touchdown run. In the Citrus Bowl against Missouri, Williams got one carry — first quarter, third-and-3 — and popped off a 20-yard touchdown run.
Comparing Cobb to Williams, Kill said, "David had great vision, a great jump cut — they're just two different-style running backs. Rodrick looks like somebody who could go play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They've had all those big physical backs, and he's a guy like that."
At 5-11, 200 pounds, Smith is smaller, but he's more polished than Cobb or Williams were in their second year at Minnesota. Part of that stems from being a coach's son: Patrick Smith was offensive coordinator at Mundy's Mill High School in Jonesboro, Ga.
"I was watching film when I was 8 years old," Rodney Smith said.
The Gophers staff also thinks the 6-0, 206-pound Brooks has been well coached. He was the state's Class AAAA offensive player of the year after rushing for 2,223 yards for Pickens High School in Jasper, Ga., last fall.
"Not only are we recruiting better players each year athletically, but each year the football IQ of the guys coming in is better and better," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "Shannon's a guy who picks some things up, and you go, 'OK, we can build with this.'
"It was the same way with Rodney. I feel completely comfortable getting him in there on a key third down because he's got that knack. He knows what needs to be done, and Shannon's the same way."
These youngsters from Georgia might get their chance soon, but the Gophers still want to see what Williams can do with all the lessons he's learned.