When Mike Sanford Jr. thought he might be in the mix to become the Gophers offensive co-coordinator, he figured he’d better study up on the team by watching the Outback Bowl.

He would see a Gophers offense with star power, with receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman catching passes from Tanner Morgan. Someone else caught Sanford’s eye, too, a churning, keep-the-chains-moving running back who rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown against Auburn.

“To say that I became a Mo Ibrahim fan would be a huge understatement,” Sanford said.

Nearly 10 months later, that first impression of Ibrahim still holds true for Sanford. In Saturday’s 49-24 loss to Michigan, Ibrahim was one of the Gophers’ few bright spots, rushing 26 times for 140 yards. The redshirt junior had touchdown runs of 16 and 5 yards, plus seven other carries that produced first downs.

“That was a very hard defense, and we knew they were going to be aggressive throughout the whole game,” Ibrahim said of Michigan. “It was a great challenge, but it’s onto the next week now.”

Next for Ibrahim is a return home to the Baltimore-D. C. area, where he and his Gophers teammates face Maryland on Friday night. Ibrahim is from Olney, Md., roughly a 15-mile drive from the Terrapins’ College Park campus. This will mark the second homecoming for the former standout at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, who rushed for 95 yards in the Gophers’ 42-13 loss at Maryland in 2018.

Ibrahim is sure to have his own small cheering section in Byrd Stadium — Big Ten games allow only family members to attend because of the coronavirus pandemic. He’ll also have a big booster in Durham, N.C., where former Gophers teammate and Baltimore native Winston DeLattiboudere III, a graduate assistant for Charlotte, will be with the 49ers for their Saturday game at Duke.

“I’ll be locked in like nobody else around the entire nation,” said the enthusiastic former defensive end, who started 36 games for Minnesota from 2016 to ’19.

‘Big Brother’ is a big fan

As he did with Sanford, Ibrahim made a lasting first impression on DeLattiboudere. They share mutual Baltimore friends from high school, though their paths rarely crossed because they’re two years apart. They got to know each other when the Gophers were recruiting Ibrahim during DeLattiboudere’s redshirt freshman season.

“That’s like my little brother,” DeLattiboudere said. “His mom’s words to me before he committed and said he was coming to Minnesota for good were, ‘If he comes up here, you better never let your eyes off my son.’ I promised I wouldn’t.”

Like most freshmen, Ibrahim had scout-team duty while redshirting in 2017. All the while, he was making a name for himself.

“Tough son of a gun,” DeLattiboudere said. “He was by far the toughest guy on scout team that year. Everybody knew what he was going to be. The rest of the nation didn’t know we had a hidden gem in our midst.”

In 2018, the nation got to first see glimpses, then breakthroughs — 157 yards and two TDs vs. Ohio State, 121 yards in the win over Wisconsin. Ibrahim capped the season with a 224-yard effort in the 34-10 Quick Lane Bowl win over Georgia Tech. He finished with 1,160 yards on 202 carries in 2018 while filling in admirably for the injured Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks.

“He runs like literally his life depends on it when he gets the ball,” DeLattiboudere said. “That’s the coolest thing about Mo — his fanatical effort to just get the ball and say, ‘I’m going to make this a positive thing and not a negative one.’ ”

The stats back it up. Against Michigan, Ibrahim had no negative rushes. In his 114 carries last year, he was thrown for a loss only once.

‘Look how Mo works’

Ibrahim, who bided his time last year as Smith and Brooks returned to health, understands the value of having a deep backfield. He’s setting an example for a pair of redshirt freshmen, Treyson Potts and Cam Wiley.

“I understand that everybody in that room is going to be important,” Ibrahim said. “Any play anybody can get in, so I’ve got to teach those young guys that they don’t take the day off.”

DeLattiboudere saw that leadership emerge early in Ibrahim, when coaches used the 5-10, 210-pounder as an example.

“The first thing Mo showed was the ability to outwork anybody,” he said. “People look at him like he’s not the biggest guy or strongest guy, but he’s a workhorse. It started to become a thing: ‘You need to be working like Mo. Look how Mo works.’ ”

Sanford sees it, too, comparing Ibrahim to Morgan in their commitment.

“It wasn’t a surprise at all in how he performed [against Michigan],” Sanford said. “What I was pleased with is not only how he performed, but his leadership and his style of running has rubbed off on Treyson Potts and Cam Wiley. And now we’re creating great depth, which is going to help keep a lot of tread on Mo’s tires. That’s going to be important as we go through this grueling stretch of Big Ten games.”