Brooks, Smith excel in new formation

Both have been on the field at the same time with a two halfback plan.

Gophers running back Shannon Brooks looks for running room on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Carter Jones, Daily File Photo

Gophers running back Shannon Brooks looks for running room on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Jack White

Redshirt sophomore Rodney Smith and sophomore Shannon Brooks have both rushed for more than 400 yards this season.

The Gophers have found different ways of getting the two on the field — and one of those ways is by installing a two-halfback formation in the offense.

“A lot of times defenses are based on personnel, and at least that’s their starting point,” said offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. “I think if you have the ability to line up in different presentations with the same group of people, I think it is something that can present challenges.”

Smith is the leading rusher on the team after filling in for the injured Brooks in the first two games.

Brooks was last year’s leading rusher with 709 yards. The two have split carries since Brooks has returned from injury, and both are on pace to top their rushing totals from last season.

“They’re good,” said head coach Tracy Claeys. “You should get better each year … they’ve been able to stay healthy, and they’re good backs that run tough.”

Claeys said the two-back formation comes down to getting your best players on the field.

“At [running back], there is only one [on the field] for the most part,” Claeys said. “When you can [play a two-halfback formation] and put them out there, and if they didn’t both have the ball catching skills, we couldn’t do that.”

Smith has also made a name for himself at a position besides running back.

The sophomore has five returns for 190 yards on kickoffs this season. One of those returns resulted in a 94-yard touchdown for Minnesota. The return and his rushing statistics helped him earn Big Ten offensive player of the week honors.

Redshirt senior quarterback Mitch Leidner said that the two-halfback set forces the defense to prepare more.

“Now that it’s on film and teams have seen we’ve done it, I’m sure they’ll take time out of their week to prepare for that in their game plans as well,” Leidner said.

Senior defensive end Hank Ekpe said the two-halfback formation requires a defensive to be more cohesive.

“You just really have to focus on that and key in on not only those maybe two or three people that are on that offense, but even the whole offense,” Ekpe said. “If there’s two main players, you definitely have to key in on them and keep your focus.”

Minnesota, which is 34th in the FBS in rushing yards per game, faces Illinois in its next game, which ranks 89th when it comes to rushing yards allowed.

Illinois’ rushing defense isn’t elite, but junior defensive end Dawuane Smoot is a force on the defense who has been brought up by Gophers coaches and players multiple times.

“He’s awfully talented, but I guess I have confidence in our guys and what we’re doing, so we hope if we can be fundamentally sound and do our thing, that’s going to take care of itself,” Johnson said.

The two-halfback set is indicative of Minnesota’s situation, which has two running backs good enough to start. Leidner said the selflessness of Brooks and Smith helps the team.

“When I think about that and how good of a friendship they have and how they’re able to push each other and even get after each other a little bit, it’s a pretty cool relationship to see and I think everybody can feed off of their relationship as well,” Leidner said.