Outside P.J. Fleck’s office sits a big tire — a NASCAR racing slick that was a souvenir from Western Michigan’s trip to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl following the 2016 season.
It’s symbolic on couple of levels. First, it’s a nod to the Broncos’ 13-1 season, the successful campaign that led to Fleck getting the Gophers job. Second, that tire reminds us that Fleck subscribes to the “pair and a spare” philosophy regarding running backs.
And as it turns out, a pair and a spare won’t be enough for Minnesota this year. Two games into the season, the Gophers already have their pair out of commission, the first spare scuffed-up and a second spare with some miles on it. And they’ll need a couple of others for depth.
“We’re going to be very creative,” said Fleck, that creativity necessitated when Rodney Smith, the team’s back-to-back reigning MVP, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on the third offensive play against Fresno State on Saturday night. As the senior was being helped off the field Saturday night, the Gophers’ running back situation was changing in a hurry.
Following the 2017 season, it appeared there would be plenty of depth and experience at running back. The “pair” portion of the theory — borrowed from former coach Glen Mason — was intact with Smith and senior Shannon Brooks, a duo that had amassed 6,283 all-purpose yards and 42 touchdowns through their junior seasons. As for the spares, the Gophers had redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim, who stood out in the spring game, and junior Jonathan Femi-Cole. Joining them were two highly sought freshmen speedsters, Bryce Williams and Nolan Edmonds.
But Brooks suffered what appeared to be a season-ending knee injury during winter conditioning drills, Ibrahim hurt his left knee after rushing for 101 yards as the backup in the opener against New Mexico State, and Smith went down early against Fresno State.
“The ACL,” Fleck told KFAN radio matter-of-factly, “is part of our game.’
When the Gophers line up for Saturday’s game against Miami (Ohio), the likely pecking order will be Williams getting the bulk of the carries, Ibrahim playing some after missing last week, and Femi-Cole and Edmonds.
“We just have the ‘next man up’ attitude,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “We’re not going to let the circumstances dictate our behavior. I was really proud of the kids. Nobody blinked when Rodney went down.”
In that 21-14 victory over the Bulldogs, Williams gained 87 yards on 25 carries but improved as the game went on. His four successive carries on the winning drive covered 25 yards and set up Seth Green’s second touchdown run of the night. That’s where the creativity comes in. Green’s listed as a receiver, but as a Wildcat formation quarterback the 6-4, 240-pounder has four of the team’s five TD runs.
While the Wildcat has given the Gophers a boost early, a wild card could help them later. Brooks is on the mend, and Fleck plans to play him four games this season — a new NCAA rule allows for that, without burning a year of eligibility. He began taking contact in practices this week. Fleck won’t play Brooks more than four games, making sure he can come back as a senior in 2019.
Smith should be back next season, too, because the Gophers will seek a sixth year of eligibility via a medical hardship waiver.
Fleck always has pointed to his third season as the one in which the team’s talent level will ramp up. And it looks as if the Gophers will have a fully stocked rack of tires next year with that pair — Smith and Brooks — and quite a few spares in Williams, Ibrahim, Femi-Cole and Edmonds, along with verbally-committed backs Treyson Potts of Williamsport, Pa., and Cameron Wiley of Las Vegas.
“There’s always a silver lining,” Fleck said on his radio show.
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org