The Gopher ground game was on display last Saturday as Minnesota staged its annual spring game at TCF Bank Stadium.
Minnesota’s four running backs – Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, James Johannesson and Jonathan Femi-Cole – collectively rushed 58 times for 275 yards and one touchdown. Smith and Johannesson were on the Gold team, while Brooks and Femi-Cole played for the White squad.
The Gold team prevailed 19-7 in the game and did so behind the strength of Smith and Johannesson. Smith, who rushed for 670 yards as a redshirt freshman last season, gained 92 yards on 18 carries last Saturday. Johannesson, who redshirted last year, led the group with 130 yards on 22 carries and scored the game’s lone offensive touchdown.
Femi-Cole, who like Johannesson redshirted last season, did not have a negative rush in the spring game and churned out 34 yards on eight carries. Brooks, who rushed for 709 yards as a true freshman last season (fourth-most ever for a true freshman), gained 19 yards on the ground on Saturday and added 12 receiving yards.
Smith was quick to praise the offensive line for the Gold team’s success.
“They did an excellent job,” said Smith. “They opened up some big holes. We didn’t have to do much. We just ran hard and tried to finish as many plays as possible.”
The ability of Smith and Brooks was on display all last season, but Saturday was the first time that fans were able to witness the talents of Johannesson and Femi-Cole in game action. Johannesson’s outburst was no surprise to Smith, who saw this emergence coming during the team’s recent winter workouts.
“He is getting confident, and that is something I love seeing in him,” said Smith. “Coming in he was kind of shy and to himself, but he is starting to open up a lot more. We competed against each other in winter workouts and are starting to build that chemistry in the backfield. Seeing him go out and make plays was great.”
While the backs were piling up yards, it was the physicality from the offensive line that had head coach Tracy Claeys smiling after the game.
“We have done more middle drills this spring than any spring I have been involved with,” said Claeys. “Getting back to being physical, so I was glad to see that. I thought at the point of attack that we definitely got better and that was an emphasis we had this spring. I thought our offensive line in the running game – on both teams – did a really nice job. They were going against some pretty good players.”
Fifth-year senior Jonah Pirsig played right tackle for the Gold team and was a big reason for his squad’s success on Saturday.
“It was a really fun day for the offensive line,” said Pirsig, who had junior college transfer Vincent Calhoun next to him at guard. “We moved the ball well and I think we have good things ahead coming this fall. We are going to get back to being a Big Ten offensive line and doing what the big ten is known for. Coach Johnson and Coach Miller both want to have the ball in the running back’s hands as much as possible.”
If Saturday was an indication, then that plan should work out pretty well.
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