Maroney seeing valuable special teams play

Brett Angel

More than anything else, Minnesota freshman running back Laurence Maroney remembers one thing in particular from all the football games he’s watched – the way players on special teams throw their bodies around with such reckless abandon.

“When I was younger I never wanted to play special teams,” Maroney said. “It’s like these people have nothing to live for the way they run down the field and stick their bodies into it.”

Although it’s something he thought might never happen, Maroney’s outlook has changed in recent weeks after getting some first-hand experience as a member of the Gophers special teams unit.

“I like it now,” Maroney admitted. “As you get older you start to understand those people are the ones trying to get in and fit in anywhere possible. I’m the same way.”

Despite putting up gaudy numbers as a senior at Normandy High School in St. Louis last year – including a 9.3 yards-per-carry average and 25 touchdowns – Maroney knew he would have a tough time getting on the field his first season at Minnesota.

With proven tailbacks Thomas Tapeh, Terry Jackson II and Marion Barber III ahead of him on the depth chart, Maroney knew from the outset his chances of seeing much playing time in the Gophers’ backfield were slim.

That left the true freshman with two options: redshirt the 2003 season and retain an extra year of eligibility or try and make a name for himself in an unlikely role on special teams.

It was an easy decision.

“(Redshirting) was never an option,” Maroney said. “I knew I had the ability to at least come in and play somewhere.”

He was right.

In just two games, Maroney has already proven his value to the Gophers, albeit in a limited role.

His 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 48-7 win against Troy State was the most impressive example of a revamped Minnesota special teams unit that has been more than a pleasant surprise to coach Glen Mason.

Barber, who has been the Gophers’ most dangerous scoring threat, with four early-season touchdowns, joins Maroney returning kickoffs and has averaged 15.6 yards handling punt-return duties for the first time in his career.

“Whatever it takes to help the team,” Barber said. “The kicking game is always helpful in giving us good field position and that’s always good for the offense.”

In the placekicking department, Rhys Lloyd – who booted a 52-yard field goal in his first attempt as a Gopher on Saturday – has quelled concerns about replacing Dan Nystrom.

“We’ve got more (big-play potential) than we’ve ever had,” Mason said of his special teams after reviewing the videotape from Saturday’s victory.

Much of that has to do with Maroney.

As a running back, Maroney scored his first touchdown on Saturday and has already received more carries (17) in his first two games than he ever expected.

But he realizes those numbers will likely diminish as the Big Ten schedule approaches, which means special teams will remain his best chance to make an impact.

In addition to returning kickoffs, Maroney is also the gunner on Minnesota’s punt coverage team; he’s the end guy on the end of the line either blocking or trying to block the kick.

“I’m just going to be a contributor,” Maroney said. “If they need me on special teams then I’m going to play there and do my best.

“Any opportunities I get to go in I’m going to let people know we don’t just have three running backs. It’s going to be like the same star backs were in. That’s what I’m going to bring to the table.”