Fleck says Minnesota ‘needs to do a better job sustaining blocks’ to help Rodney Smith’s production

Smith only had 35 yards last week against Maryland.

Running back Rodney Smith runs with the ball on Saturday, Sept. 16 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Courtney Deutz, Daily File Photo

Running back Rodney Smith runs with the ball on Saturday, Sept. 16 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Drew Cove

Rodney Smith is supposed to be one of the two featured backs for Minnesota.

Last Saturday, he got the carries, but the yards didn’t follow.

Smith only had 35 yards on 18 carries against Maryland, which comes to less than two yards per carry. Smith, along with running back Shannon Brooks, has been a large contributor to the offense for the Gophers since they arrived, but that pace of generating offense and yards looks to be slowing down.

“We didn’t execute well,” Smith said. “Running back-wise, we missed some holes, we could have ran a little bit more physical. We took accountability for our performance last week as a running back unit, and we know that we have to run the ball better.”

Smith has had moderate success so far for the Gophers, though. In the first three games he had 275 rushing yards and one touchdown.

One of those games includes the final nonconference game against Middle Tennessee State, where he only played the first half and got 107 yards. That was also a game where Brooks did not play.

“I said going into the game that [Maryland was] the best defense we’ve seen yet,” said offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. “Having not been in the Big Ten before, but having played Big Ten teams, [Maryland was] better. They were a little bigger, they were a little stronger than the teams we had seen.”

For Smith, there’s been a difference between nonconference and Big Ten play in previous years.

In Smith’s first season in 2015, he played in 12 of the 13 games. He accumulated 363 rushing yards in the first four nonconference games that season, and in the next eight games he had just 307 yards.

In 2016, Smith had a resurgence in Big Ten play, especially in the middle of the season. 

For a four-game stretch from the game at Maryland to facing last season, Smith recorded at least 100 rushing yards per game, with the highest yard total in a game coming against Purdue with 153 yards on 24 carries.

After the Purdue game, Smith’s production fell off once again, totaling only 204 yards in the last four games of the season.

“[Smith’s] got great vision, and he’s got great balance,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “He’s a phenomenal running back. We have to do a better job of sustaining blocks.”

With a first-year starting quarterback, and a young receiving core, Smith is one of the veterans of the offense.

“[Smith and Brooks] do an incredible job making my job a lot easier for me,” said quarterback Conor Rhoda. “They need to keep working to get better because they know that they can be better players.”

Smith said consistency is important for not only him, but the rest of the team. He said that too many players on hot or cold streaks aren’t as good as playing consistently.

The Gophers have running back Kobe McCrary sitting third on the depth chart, and some younger guys waiting to make an impact, if Smith and Brooks are unable to have consistent production.

“We’re going to run the ball,” Fleck said. “We’re not going to just run the ball and say ‘well that didn’t work we’ve got to come up with this completely new scheme.’”