By Daniel Kobren
Athletic Communications Student Assistant
With the return of Shannon Brooks from injury last Saturday against Colorado State, Minnesota's backfield was finally at full force this season.
The Gophers have three quality backs in Brooks, Rodney Smith and junior-college transfer Kobe McCrary as they enter Big Ten play. Add in quarterback Mitch Leidner, who has 26 career rushing scores, and then running game for Minnesota has quickly become potent once again.
The Gophers rushed for 32 touchdowns in 2014, but saw that number dip to 17 in 2015 when Brooks and Smith were freshman and Leidner played through a foot injury. Minnesota has rushed for 11 touchdowns this year, as it tallied four against Oregon State and Colorado State and three against Indiana State. Minnesota didn't rush for its 11th touchdown in 2015 until the tenth game.
Brooks and Smith did have fine freshman seasons, as they combined for 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns on 276 carries. Both players were nicked up at times last season, but against Colorado State on Saturday they were at full force. Smith rushed 17 times for 99 yards and two scores, while Brooks chipped in 85 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown. Leidner added 50 rushing yards and a touchdown as well.
Brooks missed the first two games of the season with a foot injury, but looked like his old self against the Rams.
"It felt great," Brooks said. "The whole week of practice, just running and getting reps with the ones and twos at full speed. I knew coming in I had no worries about it."
You would not know he was sidelined for more than a month with his performance on the field. The sophomore looked to be in midseason form and made plays when the Gophers needed them most. With Minnesota up by three in the third quarter, the offense was looking to extend their lead. Brooks broke loose for a 35-yard scamper to put the Gophers inside the Colorado State 10-yard line. He punctuated the drive with a 9-yard touchdown run, his first of the season.
Smith continued to impress as well, as he found the end zone in his third straight game. The Jonesboro, Ga., native recorded his second game with two touchdowns, bringing his season total to five.
"I feel we're getting better each week," Smith said of the offense. "We're building confidence as a group. I feel like everybody on the offense can make plays and everybody knows that."
McCrary gained 13 yards on four carries against Colorado State, but put on a performance two weeks ago against Indiana State. The junior rushed 17 times for 176 yards (10.4 average) and two touchdowns against the Sycamores. His 176 yards were the fourth-most ever by a Gopher at TCF Bank Stadium.
Having three healthy, good running backs is a problem that coach Tracy Claeys is happy to have.
"You always have fresh legs on the field and kids who can score anytime they touch the ball. If you just have one or two running backs, with injuries, they are going to wear down with how physical the defenses are. It's definitely an advantage to have the three kids and it's our job as coaches to find ways to get them on the field."
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