Just in time for the Big Ten season, Shannon Brooks is back.
The senior running back will make his 2019 debut Saturday at Purdue, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Monday.
Brooks tore his left anterior cruciate knee ligament before spring practice in 2018 and made a one-game only appearance that season before enduring a right knee injury. He also missed several games in 2017 with an injury.
Fleck said Brooks was the MVP in a scout-team scrimmage this past Sunday, taking reps and tackles with aplomb.
“He’s ready to go,” Fleck said. “Now, is he ready to go take 30 carries? That’s not what you’re going to be able to see.”
That’s a change from that lone game last year against Indiana, when Brooks tied for a career-high 22 carries and amassed 154 yards and a touchdown before leaving early in the fourth quarter. In that game, senior Rodney Smith already had endured a season-ending injury and backup Mohamed Ibrahim also missed that game because of an injury.
Fleck nearly had that same problem in the team’s most recent game, Sept. 14., as the Gophers cycled through most of their running backs in a 35-32 win over Georgia Southern. Ibrahim sat because of a noncontact injury from practice. Smith left early with an oblique issue. Freshman Cam Wiley exited because of a concussion. But Fleck said that trio has recovered during the bye week.
“Everybody’s back,” Fleck said. “So now we’re full strength at running back, and we need to perform.”
The Gophers have averaged just 2.6 yards per carry so far this season — ranking 124th out of 130 FBS teams. Part of that has been because of injuries. But the offensive line’s struggles have also contributed.
“They all work together as one,” Fleck said of the running backs. “I think really great running backs can create holes when there aren’t holes. They can make people miss. We have really good backs. But we also need to be able to give them the best opportunity.”
Despite all his injuries and missed time, Brooks has 1,882 yards on 358 carries in his 29 career games over four seasons. He also has scored 18 touchdowns. He’ll likely ease in at Purdue, but with Smith and Ibrahim both healthy as well, Fleck now must divide the opportunities between three potential No. 1 backs.
Fleck said he would love to redshirt Wiley, limiting him to four or fewer games, though the coach is not sure he will succeed. That’s why Fleck has limited the true freshman on special teams and only played him out of necessity against Georgia Southern when Smith left the game.
Fleck also said fellow freshman running back Treyson Potts, who nearly had to go into the game when Wiley went out, has the potential to play wide receiver at some point.
The coach is feeling good about his running back group, though, both now and in the future. Brooks and Smith are both seniors, but there are several underclassmen and players in the recruiting pipeline to keep on the trajectory.
“You can’t have enough backs in the Big Ten,” Fleck said. “And that’s what I love about our team. They understand that.”
• Fleck said senior linebacker Kamal Martin was OK to play after missing the Georgia Southern game because of a foot sprain.
• The Gophers set a 2:30 p.m. kickoff time for their Oct. 5 homecoming game against Illinois.