Gophers using three different running backs for matchup against Iowa

Smith, Brooks and McCrary have split time as the team’s top rusher this year.

Running back Shannon Brooks runs with the ball on Saturday, Sept. 30 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Jack Rodgers

Running back Shannon Brooks runs with the ball on Saturday, Sept. 30 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Drew Cove

The Gophers running backs have a situation they are used to — splitting time and finding success.

When the Gophers go down to Iowa to meet the Hawkeyes for the two teams’ 111th matchup, the Gophers will play all three of their running backs. The three backs, Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary have produced in different games for the Gophers. The trio has been together since the start of the 2016 season, and the backs have filled in for one another throughout.

“I think we have three really talented backs,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “I think they all play really well, and it’s up to us as a coaching staff to make sure that what their true strengths are, and what plays they’re really good at, that it just becomes second nature for them.”

Brooks missed three games all of the 2016-17 season, including the first two. Smith had 125 yardsand two touchdowns in the first game of the 2016-17 season, and it was the other leg to the trio, McCrary, that filled in the second game.

Against Indiana State last season, McCrary and Smith both got 17 carries each, but McCrary ended up with 176 yards and two touchdowns, and Smith finished the game with 74 yards and a touchdown.

“I just run hard,” McCrary said. “When Coach calls my number, I need to go out there and make plays, and that’s my mindset going in.”

This season, each of the three backs has a game with 100 yards or more, and Smith and McCrary have two each. 

Smith and McCrary have both run for more than 100 yards in the same games. The games were against Middle Tennessee State and Illinois — two games that Brooks didn’t play in.

“They can all see it,” Fleck said. “He’s played two games and he’s ran for over 100 yards in both, and a lot of his yards come from after contact.”

The three backs stabilized the offense last season, and now with two developing quarterbacks, specifically Demry Croft, they will provide the groundwork for the next five Big Ten games.

Smith was the top rusher for Minnesota last season, and he is currently the leading rusher this year as well. The running back had almost 1,200 yards last season and has close to 550 yards through seven games this year.

“I think we all have pretty different running styles,” Smith said. “I would say [that] I enjoy ‘wiggling’, making guys miss.”

The Gophers also have Brooks, whom, despite some injuries in the recent seasons, manages to perform close to Smith’s production.

Brooks was the leading rusher for the Gophers back in 2015. He emerged with 709 yards over Smith’s 670 yards, despite Brooks not getting any yards in the first three games of the season.

“We talk about it during the week, how we’re going to try to split the carries,” said offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. “It’s always a fluid situation; injuries, who has the hot hand, how the game’s going [all factor in.]”