MINNEAPOLIS — When the Gophers football team had Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary as their running backs in 2017, Smith’s mother proposed a nickname for the trio: “Earth Wind & Fire.”
If Minnesota’s current three-tailback attack continues to share in the U’s success running the ball, someone might need to come up with another moniker.
After the team’s top two tailbacks, Mo Ibrahim and Trey Potts, were lost to season-ending injuries, Bryce Williams rushed for 127 yards in a win over Nebraska two weeks ago. Then Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving each went over 100 yards against Maryland. All five running backs have produced 100-yard games, a season first for the program since at least 1942.
Like the “Earth Wind & Fire” trio, this current threesome bring different attributes to the ensemble.
“(Irving) is obviously great in space and we want to get him in space,” Gophers running back Kenni Burns said. “Then you’ve got Bryce, who’s been in the system a long time and he knows how to execute the system and be efficient. Then Ky is a young back that I call an old-school slasher. He is a one-cut-and-get-vertical (runner), which really works well in our offense.”
Gophers offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. said they will “tag certain plays on the call sheet where I will ask for particular playmakers.” Sometimes that includes the RB going off script like Irving did when he used a stiff-arm to bounce his way to a 9-yard touchdown run against Maryland.
Sanford said he wants to get each of the three running back involved in the opening 12 scripted plays. But Sanford and the Gophers don’t want to keep going back to the same formations and plays for certain players too often because opponents can exploit recurring tendencies.
After each back has gotten some carries in the first half, the Gophers staff will determine who might have the hot hand, while still trying to mix in the others.
This is a deviation from what they were doing to start the season. Ibrahim had 30 carries through three quarters against the Buckeyes in the season opener before he ruptured his Achilles. Potts had 34 rushes in the second game against Miami (Ohio). There was better distribution in carries in the next three games before Potts’ year ended with an upper-body injury.
Against Nebraska, Williams had 17 rushes, and Irving and Thomas had seven apiece. Head coach P.J. Fleck said he wanted to ride the experience of Williams, a fourth-year tailback who ran for 502 yards in 2018. That paid off when Williams had a 56-yard touchdown rush to seal the victory over the Cornhuskers.
Against Maryland, second-year tailback Thomas had 21 carries for 139 yards, while first-year RB Irving had 15 for 105 and Williams 13 for 48.
“You’d love to have tons of data to show you what they really do in game situations, so you can really have that data from whether it’s spring, or whether it’s in-season,” Fleck said. “…That’s why when you’re playing freshmen, you’re like, all right, well, you’re not sure what you’re going to get.”
Burns held up Williams as an example for the young running backs. Against Maryland, Williams rushed for four yards at the end of the first quarter, and during the stoppage, he told Irving to key for the run.
“One of the cool things from last week’s game,” Burns said. “Bryce had told me the backside ‘backer is going to do this so just read him and it will take your right where the promise land is.”
Irving turned that intel into a 21-yard run.
Thomas has recovered from offseason surgery that cost him spring practice and remade his body. “He had such an incredible transformation,” Sanford said. “He scaled it back first, got rid of that young, youthful baby fat, if you will, and was lean and more explosive and then started building muscle onto it.”
The Gophers’ stable of ball-carriers also includes wildcat quarterback Cole Kramer, who has 21 rushes for 104 yards and two touchdowns this season. Kramer has been working with Burns’ unit to improve some of his rushing fundamentals.
If Kramer continues to be integral to the rushing attack, it could create nickname opportunities for quartets on top of trios.