Rodney Smith showed off the vision and quick cutting ability the Gophers coaches have been raving about Thursday against No. 2 TCU, rushing 16 times for 88 yards. Afterward, the redshirt freshman was asked if he felt any butterflies in his college debut.
“None, actually,” Smith said. “I was surprised. Coach [Jerry] Kill said, ‘The first game, if you’re not nervous, then you’re not human.’ So I guess I’m a machine.”
The Terminator from Jonesboro, Ga., came off the bench to average 5.5 yards per carry, outpacing senior starter Rodrick Williams (3.6) and bettering the mark David Cobb had last year (5.17), when he set a single-season rushing record for the Gophers with 1,629 yards.
“I think we found out [about Smith],” Kill said Friday. “We wanted to see how Rodney would do. He’ll certainly put some pressure on to play more.”
And Smith wasn’t the only new element the Gophers showed in their 23-17 loss to the Horned Frogs before the largest announced crowd (54,147) in TCF Bank Stadium history.
Kill’s squad also unveiled Julian Huff, a true freshman linebacker who repeatedly lined up at defensive end and turned into a major thorn in Heisman candidate Trevone Boykin’s side.
Huff started the game and made seven tackles, along with several other impact plays. He snuffed out a potential first-quarter screen pass, helping lead to a sack of Boykin. He drilled Boykin on an option play, leading to another tackle for a loss. And he hit or pressured Boykin at least three other times.
The 5-11, 220-pound Huff repeatedly blew past TCU’s 6-6, 315-pound left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai on his way toward Boykin.
In the fourth quarter, ESPN analyst Brian Griese watched Huff shed a block from 6-4, 320-pound guard Brady Foltz before wrapping up Boykin for a tackle.
“He has to fight that [block] off, and then tackle one of the most explosive players in college football,” Griese said. “None of us have seen [Huff] play, but he’s got a bright future in front of him.”
The Gophers hope several of their young wide receivers do, too.
True freshman Rashad Still was the talk of training camp after using his speed, leaping ability and 6-5, 200-pound frame to reel in numerous passes.
The El Paso, Texas native had three catches for 14 yards against TCU, with two of those catches coming late in the fourth quarter. Still was quarterback Mitch Leidner’s most targeted receiver (seven times) behind senior KJ Maye (nine).
“We had some young guys playing for the first time; I’m sure they were a little nervous,” Kill said. “It was good to see Rashad catch a couple balls there late and get some confidence.”
Gophers fans have been hearing about the team’s redshirt freshman receivers for some time. Melvin Holland Jr. and Jeff Jones saw their first playing time Thursday but neither had a catch. Kill said Isaiah Gentry would be starting if not for a hamstring injury.
Kill lamented having four would-be starters on offense hobbled with injuries, with no certainty when they’ll be healthy.
Offensive lineman Josh Campion had started 39 consecutive games before missing this one because of concussion symptoms. Left tackle Ben Lauer had to leave in the second quarter after being ineffective on his surgically repaired left knee.
Gentry and tight end Lincoln Plsek (back injury) are also out.
The injuries complicated the unveiling of another new wrinkle Thursday — the no-huddle offense. The team changed gears throughout the game, going huddle and no-huddle.
The team huddled on its first series but switched to the no-huddle after getting a first down. The Gophers changed their tempo throughout the game, and executed the no-huddle expertly on their 91-yard touchdown drive late in the game.
“We did a good job with it, but the problem is we have five [healthy] offensive linemen,” Kill said. “We’ve got two left tackles down. How long can you go with it? We had to play a little cat and mouse with it.”
Kill said the Gophers made mistakes against TCU that can be cleaned up in time for the Sept. 12 game at Colorado State. He said a team often shows the most improvement between its first and second game. That’s critical now because Kill has called this trip to Fort Collins one of the toughest tests of the season.
“We’ll get there,” he said.