A day after announcing that running back Rodney Smith, the Gophers’ leading rusher and all-purpose threat, would miss the remainder of the season, coach P.J. Fleck on Tuesday addressed what’s ahead for his team’s backfield.
Getting the first crack at replacing Smith, the two-time team MVP who tore his left anterior cruciate knee ligament on the third offensive play Saturday night against Fresno State, likely will be true freshman Bryce Williams, who rushed 25 times for 87 yards against Fresno State in relief of Smith.
The Sarasota, Fla., native is listed in an “or” situation with redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim as the starter against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday. Ibrahim, however, dressed but didn’t play against Fresno State because of a left knee injury suffered in the opener against New Mexico State. Fleck said Ibrahim looked good in individual drills Tuesday.
“I expect him to play; it just depends how much,” the coach said.
Adding a longer-term twist to the plot is the status of senior Shannon Brooks, who has rushed for more than 1,700 yards in his career. Brooks suffered a knee injury just before spring practice, and Fleck initially ruled him out for the 2018 season. But a new redshirt rule the NCAA adopted in June allows players to participate in up to four games without losing a year of eligibility. That made Brooks a possibility to play this fall.
Fleck said Brooks participated in semi-contact drills for the first time Tuesday.
“You could tell he was like a kid in a candy store,” he said. “Big smile on his face, because he was finally involved in some real football. But it’s going to take a little bit of time [for Brooks to return].”
One thing Fleck won’t do is use up Brooks’ final season of eligibility this fall.
“I am not going to play him more than the four games. I made it very clear to him and his family,” Fleck said. “There’s a strategy. We might have to play him sooner, but I highly doubt it. … We have a plan, and I’ll keep that plan to ourselves, but he’ll play four games by the end of the year.”
The new rule allows players to use their four games non-consecutively. That means Brooks could play in any four games coaches deem most essential.
For now, it’s the 18-year-old Williams who appears the most likely to be the lead back. Fleck liked what he saw from the 6-foot, 200-pounder as the Fresno State game wore on.
“He had his eyes down in the first half and was just getting carries and running. That’s OK, he’s a true freshman, I get that,” Fleck said. “Second half, he felt the game a lot more. He got into a rhythm. His emotions and style of play that we recruited came out in the second half.”
A final story line in this running back drama: Gophers fans likely haven’t seen the last of Smith, a fifth-year senior. The team will seek a sixth year of eligibility through a medical hardship waiver.
“We can’t say it’s 100 percent yet, because the paperwork technically hasn’t been filed. But when the paperwork gets filed at the end of the Wisconsin game, we’re confident it meets all the requirements for it to happen,” Fleck said. “In every one of them, he checks the box.”
While he waits for that answer this winter, Smith already has made it clear he still plans on contributing.
“At today’s practice … he’s got his crutches and is out there coaching, out there demanding,” Fleck said. “It was fun to watch.”
This all sets up in 2019 — in addition to a more experienced Williams and Ibrahim — a mid-twentysomething backfield combo of Smith and Brooks next fall.
“Jokingly, I said [to Smith], ‘You’re going to be a 34-year-old senior. … Do you want to move on?’ ” Fleck said on his KFAN radio show. “He said, ‘No, we have something special here. I really want to come back.’ ”