Even back when David Cobb was getting one carry per season, Gophers coaches raved about the tailback’s vision, his ability to see defensive creases that few else could without slow-motion video.
That word “vision” came up again in February, when offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was rattling off the strengths of Rodney Smith, a redshirt freshman who will be one of four backs fighting to replace Cobb when spring practice opens Tuesday.
“[Smith] may even have better vision than David,” Limegrover said. “I’m not saying he’s the full package, but Rodney will not only see what’s obvious; he’ll see something a little more subtle. He’s just so natural when he gets the ball in his hands.”
Cobb sure made it look natural as a senior, when he set school records for rushing attempts (314) and rushing yards (1,626).
He leaves an enormous void for a team that ran the ball on 70.2 percent of its plays last season.
With the Gophers coming off their first New Year’s Day bowl appearance in 50 years, their ability to replace Cobb looms as their biggest question heading into spring practice. Limegrover envisions multiple running backs sharing the work Cobb shouldered almost by himself.
“This won’t necessarily be running back by committee, but different guys will bring different things to the table,” Limegrover said. “It may not always be the same guy, but you may have three guys that are getting 8-10-12 carries apiece, or one guy getting 16 and another one getting nine — that type of thing.
“They all bring something different to the plate, and it’s who will take their weaknesses and turn them into strengths the quickest.”
This year’s recruiting class includes three running backs — Jonathan Femi-Cole (from Toronto), Shannon Brooks (Jasper, Ga.) and James Johannesson (Fargo, N.D.). Each could be part of the Cobb-replacement equation come fall, but they won’t be on campus until June.
Spring practice — 15 sessions culminating with the April 11 spring game at TCF Bank Stadium — will be a showcase for four running backs already on campus. A closer look:
5-11, 247-pound senior
2014: 5.0 yards per carry
Scouting report: He’s a bulldozer in short-yardage situations but can show surprising burst, evidenced by his 19-yard touchdown run at Nebraska and 20-yard TD run in the Citrus Bowl.
Limegrover says: “I think Rodrick’s working hard to prove he can be a 22-25 carry [per game], 55-65 play [per game] guy. He probably has better focus than I’ve seen at any particular time. He’s lost some weight. He’s working very hard in the workouts which hadn’t always been his calling card.”
5-9, 190-pound sophomore
2014: 4.7 yards per carry
Scouting report: He’s undersized but lightning quick. Ankle and shoulder injuries have slowed his development. He’s competing in track for the Gophers now, too.
Limegrover says: “You could see when Berkley caught the short pass in the bowl game, it was like Point A to Point B in a hurry. But he was even showing, leading up to that [in practice], those types of characteristics and getting comfortable.”
6-foot, 198-pound redshirt freshman
2014: Academically ineligible
Scouting report: Rivals.com listed him as a four-star recruit, coming out of Minneapolis Washburn. He gained eligibility with a strong fall semester in the classroom but couldn’t participate in football activities.
Limegrover says: “It’s all going to be new to Jeff. Our guys ooh and ahh at what he’s doing in captains’ practice, but the thing I caution with Jeff is at least those other guys have been through everything. … Two years ago at this time, David Cobb was not the man. He was still developing. And I have a sneaking suspicion that’s going to be what holds Jeff back early on.
“I think we can give him the ball and go. But when we want to throw the ball on first down, and he’s in there, is he going to be able to protect? Is he going to be able to go on the different cadences? Is he going to be able to get aligned? That just comes with time.”
5-11, 198-pound redshirt freshman
Scouting report: Rivals.com listed him as a two-star recruit, even though he rushed for 2,201 yards and was a first-team All-State selection at Mundy Mills High School in Georgia.
Limegrover says: “He reminds us a lot of a kid named Arkee Whitlock, who played for us at Southern Illinois and played in the CFL. Where it was like every time he got the ball, you just felt like something really good was going to happen.
“The nice thing about it is Rodney’s dad’s a coach, and he’s been around football his whole life. So we’ll do a blitz pick up, and he just kind of fits and sticks his nose in there. Not that he’s a finished product by any means. But even just having sat through those meetings all fall, and [practicing] for the bowl game, it kind of gives him a little bit of an open eye to see what’s going on.”