Prepared to carry the load

This is the first season since 2002 in which Minnesota has had one feature back.

David McCoy

Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney said he spent most of his free time last year hanging out with his best friend, Marion Barber III.

Now without Barber around, Maroney said he spends most of his free time just hanging out in his room, doing homework or playing video games – namely NCAA Football.

“I ain’t going to lie – when the game first came out, for about a week, I’m like (playing it constantly),” the junior said. “But then it just got old because I’d just be giving it to myself all the time. They (made) me a beast on that game.”

It’s fitting. After all, Barber and Maroney were also quite the duo on the field. The tandem became the first pair in NCAA history to each rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

And because Barber skipped his senior year to be drafted by the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, Maroney will be called on to shoulder the load as the feature back, though he obviously won’t be called on to carry the ball quite as much as his 128-bit alter-ego.

“The only reason it feels different is because Marion ain’t here,” Maroney said. “When I look to my left or I look behind me, Marion ain’t there. Or when I go to my locker, he’s not right next to me. That’s about the only difference I see.”

Even though Maroney said early season practice hasn’t felt much different, this is the first season since 2002 that Minnesota has had one feature back instead of splitting carries evenly between him and Barber.

Minnesota coach Glen Mason said he plans for Maroney to get appoximately 75 percent of the playing time, with Amir Pinnix and Gary Russell splitting the other 25 percent. But Mason said having Maroney as the team’s sole feature back won’t change the schemes or game plans at all.

“Other than that I know that Marion’s not out there, what we’re doing is no different,” Mason said.

But Maroney does expect there to be some changes made. He said it won’t be as if he’ll have another 25 percent of the carries to make up for, because he expects the Gophers to pass the ball more than they did last year.

Maroney also said the Gophers have put in more plays designed to throw him the ball out of the backfield. He said they’ve been “looking pretty good so far.”

Minnesota offensive coordinator Mitch Browning had no reservations about praising Maroney’s ability to take on the bigger role. In fact, Browning said he expects Maroney to relish the opportunity.

“Most players that are real competitors want the ball in their hands, like Michael Jordan,” Browning said. “(Maroney) is the best running back I’ve ever been around in my coaching career. Absolutely. And I still think he’s capable of playing even better.”

Browning most certainly isn’t the first to notice Maroney’s capabilities. Rivals.com named Maroney a preseason first-team All-America running back, along with Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson, and Maroney’s name has even crept into some Heisman Trophy conversations.

But Maroney said he doesn’t find it difficult to keep the “H” word from becoming a distraction. He has bigger goals.

“I’m not even thinking about that,” he said. “I’m trying to win a Big Ten championship, trying to help my team out. I’m just going to go out there and do what I do best and just run the ball and play hard. And by me doing that, if that’s going to give me the Heisman, then so be it.”

His junior season hasn’t even begun and Maroney is already fielding questions about whether or not he’ll follow Barber’s lead and skip his senior year to enter the NFL Draft. He said that depends on how his season goes, and he won’t decide until after the season, telling reporters to check back then.

For now, he only wants defenders chasing him.

“I don’t know, I can’t even tell you man,” Maroney said. “You really can’t predict what’s going to happen, you know. There’s just no telling at this point in time. If you ask me about it Jan. 1, I might have an answer for you. No, you can’t even ask me that day, because we’re having a bowl game. You’ve got to catch me after that.”