In just a few short weeks, the Minnesota Golden Gophers football season will kick off against Buffalo on Aug. 31. While there is a huge amount of excitement for head coach P.J. Fleck to get underway with his first season at the helm, there are questions about how he applies his Western Michigan offense to Big Ten football. However, the Minnesota backfield is the safety net Fleck can continually fall back on this season and find success.
Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks both return to the Minnesota offense for their third seasons, giving the Gophers some reliability despite the never-ending quest for a stud quarterback. While the wealth of having two talented backs can break the flow of the offensive rhythm, this pairing is a match made in heaven. Each of these running backs brings something unique to the table for this team, with both styles adding to the other back’s as a complement instead of a deterrent.
Coming out of Pickens High School (Ga.) and putting up monster numbers, Brooks did not receive any attention in the heart of SEC country, only receiving offers from two Power 5 schools: The Gophers and Georgia State. Immediately upon his arrival in Minneapolis, his power (see the Purdue hit stick) and speed (bolted out of high school with a 4.56 40-yard dash) mix was helping tear up opposing defenses. He is a great straight-line runner, offering pop up the middle of the line while able to outrun would-be tacklers once he hits the open field. One of the keys for Brooks is arm tackles fail to bring him down, with linebackers and safeties constantly throwing limbs at the strong frame of Brooks, only to bounce off.
In 2016, a foot injury kept the duo from really exploding, holding Brooks back to 650 rushing yards and five touchdowns. The 2015 season offers a better look at what can happen with a full (healthy) body of work, as he tallied 876 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns, along with nearly a 6.0-yards-per-carry average. Because he is a great power back, he also gives the backfield muscle in the red zone, running over opponents in the tight space that a crunched red zone creates. Brooks falls into the mold of the Big Ten running back stereotype, giving Minnesota a hammer on offense.
If Brooks is the power and punch, then Smith is the finesse and blinding speed. The Mundy’s Mill High product broke out last season for 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. The standout for his game in comparison to Brooks is his ability to cut and glide past defenders, using his shifty running to breeze past tacklers as opposed to bowling over them. When he makes one or more defenders miss, he can then hit the gas and take off in the open field.
While both players can catch passes out of the backfield, Smith is more versatile still with his kick returning contributions. With 263 yards and a touchdown on only eight returns, he averaged 32.9 yards per return — putting to shame the team average of 23 yards per return. Players who offer up plenty of ways to attack the other team are obviously a bonus, and Smith’s speed makes him deadly in three categories.
Diving deeper into the stats, Brooks averaged 5.1 yards per carry in the first half of games last season. In the first quarter, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry, while he falls under a 5.0-yard average in every other quarter. Smith, in contrast, averages 5.8 yards per carry in the fourth quarter of games. He also dips below 5.0 yards in every other quarter.
This is not to say that the backs are only good for a specific quarter or half, as both average around 5.0 yards per carry — a solid average. But the stats bear out why this duo works so well together. Brooks is the power, Smith the crossover, and both wear down a defense in a specific way. Brooks starts the game strong by offering an immediate punch in the mouth, and when the defense adjusts to his aggressive, power running, Smith comes in, offering blinding speed and quick side-stepping jukes that turn the end of games into a footrace. Finishing teams off with a back flying past a defense that has been worn down playing ground-and-pound trench football makes this dynamic duo the consistent pieces that row the boat on offense for the Gophers all season.