Shannon Brooks remembered visiting the Gophers during his recruitment and rooming with another Georgia running back who was redshirting his first season. Despite the two playing the same position and growing up just an hour’s drive apart, Brooks had never known Rodney Smith.
But it didn’t take him long to realize Smith would be an integral part of his journey, and their stories would intertwine for longer than they probably expected.
While the two have dominated the Gophers backfield since 2015 — Smith with 3,495 career rushing yards and Brooks with 1,998 — they’ve actually only shared two games where they have rushed for more than 100 yards each: In 2016 at Penn State and this past Saturday against Illinois.
The most recent one might be the most meaningful for the pair. Smith is the oldest member of the Gophers team, a sixth-year player after his redshirt season plus a season-ending ACL tear last year. Brooks is right behind him, having also redshirted what should have been his senior year last season because of a knee injury.
Against Illinois, Smith rushed for a career-high 211 yards. Brooks, in just his second game this season and the first without a snap limit, posted 111 yards. Both scored touchdowns in a breakout game for what had been a stagnant Gophers rushing attack.
After the game, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck hugged the two and told them how proud he was of them, how good it was to have them both back healthy and how they have the potential to put together a “very special” final season.
Fleck, who joined the Gophers in 2017, said Brooks and Smith are “two guys that never had to stay” with the Gophers and could have easily transferred during the coaching change and all the team turmoil that preceded it, like the player boycott.
“Not only did they stay, they wanted to be better men,” Fleck said. “… It’s fun to watch young men grow up. It’s been fun to watch their maturation process. … Forget the rushing yards. That was the excitement of the day. But for them to accomplish, to go through what they’ve done and then accomplish what they’ve done … you have to celebrate those moments with them.”
Smith did that with Brooks when he returned for just his second game in as many years against Purdue in Week 5. But he also helped him improve, telling his teammate to watch out for dropping his head on some runs.
“He’s a fast-paced guy. He plays the game full speed. He only has one speed,” Smith said of Brooks’ excitement to finally play again. “ ... I know that when he gets out there, he’s going to make the most of his opportunity.”
Brooks said he remembers breaking into the open field on one run against Illinois and then not knowing what to do because he was so amped up trying several different maneuvers. But he and Smith always have helped each other and have spread that ethos throughout a young running back room.
“I just wanted to bond with him immediately,” Brooks recalled of meeting Smith. “And it helped me be more comfortable, and it helped me learn more teammates and stuff like that. But he showed me the ropes.”
Now, they’re a pair of veterans. Brooks, who turned 23 on Wednesday, said he was quite sore after the Illinois game, and Smith, also 23, hobbled a bit at the end of the game. Fleck joked it was just a symptom of old age.
Brooks credited Smith with bringing him back to football after several injury woes the past two seasons discouraged him. Now they are showcasing what they can accomplish on and off the field.
“We hang out. We play games. We go out to eat,” Brooks said. “When we’re [at the football complex], we hang out, watch film with each other, make each other better. And our bond just grew over the years.”