Early during practice on a sunny, 85-degree Tuesday, Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck put his team through a drill that featured two blockers matched up with two defenders at different levels, while a ball-carrier tried to pick his way through the mass of bodies and sprint out the other end without being tackled. All the while, teammates formed a tunnel with the offense on one side and defense on the other.
First up in the drill for the offense was running back Mohamed Ibrahim, the sixth-year senior who is back on the field and taking full contact nearly a year after a ruptured left Achilles' tendon ended his season in the opener against Ohio State. In the drill, Ibrahim powered his way through a would-be tackler to his teammates' delight.
Tuesday wasn't the first time since the injury that Ibrahim was back absorbing hits – that came last week – but the Baltimore native met with the media for the first time since last training camp and declared his recovery at "100 percent.''
"It was weird,'' he said of his first contact since his Achilles' surgery. "I hadn't been tackled since Sept. 2, so it's a rhythm thing. You just gotta learn how to do it all over again.''
That shouldn't be too difficult for Ibrahim, who was doing it quite well before his injury. The 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year rushed for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in that seven-game season, averaging 153.7 yards per game, second best in the nation. Last Sept. 2, he was picking up where he left off against No. 4 Ohio State at Huntington Bank Stadium. He tore through the Buckeyes for 162 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries during a 45-31 loss.
On his 30th carry, however, Ibrahim's left calf had a telltale ripple as he planted his foot, stretching for extra yardage. Ibrahim lay on the turf, clutching at his leg, but he didn't initially believe the injury was that serious.
"I thought it was just a cramp,'' Ibrahim said. "[Team medical staff] didn't tell me what it actually was until I was walking into the locker room. It was surprising.''
His season over and his career possibly in question because of an injury that's not easy for running backs to overcome, Ibrahim turned to his faith.
"You know, I put it in God's hands,'' he said. "Whatever he wants me to go through, I'll go through.''
First came surgery, after which Ibrahim had to keep his casted leg on a scooter. Then came the long rehabilitation process. He admits there were difficult moments.
"Just being able to walk, learning how to walk again, being able to run, learning how to run again,'' he said. "Stuff like that, I took for granted.''
Ibrahim's spirits might have been down, but he found a greater purpose in helping coach the Gophers running backs last year. "That got me through it,'' said Ibrahim, whose 3,003 career rushing yards are eighth on the Gophers career list — 1,651 behind leader Darrell Thompson. "I just wanted to be around the game.''
Ibrahim estimates he began feeling like his old self around January or February. He participated in spring practice but did not take contact while also fasting during the Islamic observance of Ramadan.
Now he's three weeks away from returning in a game. The Gophers play New Mexico State in the season opener on Sept. 1 at Huntington Bank Stadium. Last time there, he was well on his way to a 200-yard outing against Ohio State. However, he doesn't look back at what might have been.
"Nah, I don't live in that world,'' he said. "This is the world I live in, and I just gotta move on with it.''
Mohamed Ibrahim holds several Gophers records. The 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year is entering his final year of eligibility after playing part of just one game his senior season before leaving with a season-ending injury.
Rushing yards per game in 2020.
Touchdowns in consecutive games (four at Maryland and four at Illinois during the 2020 season).
Consecutive 100-yard rushing games (Jan. 1, 2020-Sept. 2, 2021).
Most career rushing yards in bowl games. He played in two.