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Gophers looking for running back depth heading into spring game

Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Rodney Smith needs 1,260 all-purpose yards to break Darrell Thompson’s school record of 5,109. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS—It would be best if Rodney Smith doesn't play at all in the Gophers' spring football game Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium. The durable senior running back is just too important to the team to risk injury.

That became even more paramount at the start of spring practices March 6 when Gophers second-year coach P.J. Fleck announced fellow standout running back Shannon Brooks injured his leg in offseason workouts and would miss the 2018 season. With outgoing senior Kobe McCrary off the depth chart, that left Smith as the only veteran running back for an inexperienced group of quarterbacks to rely on this fall.

Thursday's 6 p.m. spring game — which was moved up from Saturday, April 14, because of a forecast of snow that day — will have redshirt freshmen Mohamed Ibrahim and Dominik London of East Ridge on the maroon team, with redshirt junior Jonathan Femi-Cole and redshirt freshman walk-on Mike Delich of Apple Valley on the gold team. Smith and Brooks also are listed on the gold team roster.

Smith took the news of Brooks' injury harder than most Gophers. The Georgia natives have bonded in Minnesota since their arrivals four and five years ago.

"It was tough for me. It was tough to hear," Smith said. "That is my road dog. I thought we was going to go out together (as seniors), but he will crush his rehab. I'm excited for him, and I know he will bounce back next year strong."

Besides Smith and Brooks, Femi-Cole is the only running back who has seen game action. He had nine carries for 42 yards in 2017.

Meanwhile, Smith, 22, joked about feeling his relatively grizzled age in spring practices. "They don't call me grandpa, but I know I am a grandpa," he said.

Last season as a junior, Smith's 229 carries ranked 27th in the nation, and he added 17 receptions and 14 kickoff returns. Those touches added up to 1,447 all-purpose yards to move him up to eighth in school history with 3,850. He needs 1,260 all-purpose yards to break Darrell Thompson's school record of 5,109. That's achievable — if he stays healthy — considering Smith has averaged 1,283 across his three seasons.

"Yeah, I've seen it," Smith said of the record. "It's up there, but can't worry about that. I'm trying to be the best me for the team and bring the best out of the other guys around me."

Smith has seen his amount of reps during team portions of spring practice scaled back across the Gophers' 13 practices. That has allowed Ibrahim, a 5-foot-10, 205-pounder from Olney, Md., to step up.

"I think (Ibrahim is) having a really good spring so far," Fleck said after the Gophers' third spring practice. "He's really shifty, very strong. He can go speed to power pretty quickly, but he's a really decisive runner."

Running back coach Kenni Burns agrees. "Mike Delich is going an elite job, too," Burns said after the U's ninth spring practice. "I'm really impressed with him."

In June, the Gophers will add two freshmen in the 2018 class — Bryce Williams, a 6-foot, 200-pounder from Sarasota, Fla., and Nolan Edmonds, a 5-foot-11, 200-pounder from Alpharetta, Ga.

"Bryce, you see him, he's big," Burns said with a laugh. "He's big, and he's fast. I think people clocked him at a 4.5 (seconds in the 40-yard dash). You watch him workout and he does a tremendous job.

"Then Nolan, he's is an exceptional athlete," Burns continued. "He does some stuff out of the backfield catching the ball. He's physical. He's bigger, and he's got a good upside, too."

The Gophers are banking on a few of them stepping up this fall.