MINNEAPOLIS -- University of Minnesota star running back Mohamed Ibrahim joked around during the U’s spring game May 1 by dressing up as head coach P.J. Fleck. Instead of pads and a helmet, he took on Fleck’s semi-formal attire on game days: a necktie and a quarter-length zip-up and accessory of sunglasses.
Minnesota’s fourth-year running back was out for the game as he observed Ramadan, and the reigning Big Ten running back of the year has little to prove on the field in an intrasquad setup anyway. Plus, given how Fleck plans to liberally use Ibrahim again in the 2021 season, the less wear and tear the better.
In previous years at Minnesota, Fleck has prescribed to the theory of having a “pair and a spare” in the backfield, and fostering that depth served him well with combinations of Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, Kobe McCrary, then Bryce Williams and Ibrahim entering the mix.
Fleck didn’t spread the workload around in 2020 and won’t plan on doing that much of it again in 2021.
“I’ve gotten that question a few times,” Fleck said this week about a query on Ibrahim’s workload. “Mo’s going to play. It’s not like, ‘All right, Mo. Now that you’ve done all this stuff, it’s your last year and we’re only going to give you so many carries.’ That’s not going to happen. He’s going to carry the load.”
Ibrahim led the nation with 28.7 carries per game in 2020. In a shortened seven-game season, he had a staggering 201 rushes for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also had eight receptions for 56 yards.
“He’s one of the best players in college football, and you want him to continue to be one of the best players in college football,” Fleck said. “He’s what makes your team really good, and your best players when they’re on the field make you better. So, he’s going to play.”
Fleck’s view was echoed by second-year offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. in late April.
“It sounds great to me,” Ibrahim said after the spring game. “I’m ready for the load. I know I need a great backup support system behind me. (Running backs coach Kenni) Burns is going to prepare me for it with the different looks I might get this year. I’m ready for the challenge.”
Ready for the challenge
That preparation was ongoing Tuesday when Ibrahim was in Burns’ office inside the Larson Football Performance Center. After the spring game, Ibrahim said he is preparing for what likely will be defenses loading up to stop the run. One element was watching film on what made former Wisconsin tailback Jonathan Taylor and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins successful in their heydays.
“Just to see how they did it,” Ibrahim said. “(Defenses) load up the box pretty heavy and you just have to know that you might not get a big play every four or five runs, but it’s going to happen.”
No one is asking Ibrahim to take a backseat, but taking some of the load off could help him stay healthy through a 12-game regular season and postseason. Ibrahim was slowed a bit by an upper-body injury in 2020, but didn’t have fewer than 20 carries in a game.
Meanwhile, the Gophers are trying to cultivate depth behind Ibrahim. Last year, Cam Wiley was second on the team with 29 carries for 179 yards and a touchdown. Trey Potts had 19 carries for 121 yards and one touchdown; he showed a playmaking burst with 49 yards on three carries against Illinois but later missed games with a lower leg injury.
The U welcomed its newest running back, Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving, to campus on Tuesday. He also joins fellow tailbacks in Williams and Ky Thomas, the 2020 tailback.
“Trey Potts definitely has come on strong,” Fleck said. “Cam Wiley’s come on strong. Bryce Williams had a tremendous offseason. … I’m excited where that room’s headed. Ky Thomas is healthy finally, and he looks great.”
Fleck did acknowledge there might need to be some load management with Ibrahim, who opted to return to Minnesota instead of entering the NFL draft this spring.
“It just becomes how much can Mo handle,” Fleck said. “We know he can do it, but we also know there can come a point of when is it too much. Spreading it out over the course of 12, 13, 14 games is going to be critical, but doing it at the right times, the proper times, to be able to get those other guys reps.”
Like Ibrahim did under Smith’s wing before Smith latched on with the Carolina Panthers, the younger running backs can learn from Ibrahim in his final season.
“They’ve got an amazing leader to learn behind, and they need to take every single minute to learn from Mo what they possibly can,” Fleck said. “That’s priceless, priceless knowledge you’re getting from a guy that’s Big Ten running back of the year. … He’s capable of doing a heck of a lot more — he knows it and (we) know it. He’s one of the best players in college football.”