Rodney Smith steps up in relief of injured Brooks

The sophomore rushed 125 yards, a new career-best, in the game Thursday evening.

Gophers running back Rodney Smith makes a touchdown during the Gophers game against the Oregon State Beavers on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Image by Bridget Bennett

Gophers running back Rodney Smith makes a touchdown during the Gophers’ game against the Oregon State Beavers on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium.

by Jack White

The Gophers had to make adjustments when their leading rusher from last season, Shannon Brooks, broke a bone in his right foot on August 9.

Sophomore Rodney Smith was put in the starting lineup, while Brooks watched from the sidelines during the Gophers’ opening game against Oregon State Thursday evening.

Smith stepped up to provide the Gophers with two touchdowns and 125 rushing yards, which tied his season total in touchdowns from last year, and set a career-high for rushing yards in a game.

“He’s a really good zone-stretch player on the edge with the pulling lineman,” said head coach Tracy Claeys. “He’s very patient with the blocks and finds where to make the cut. He’s a tough kid. He doesn’t get credit enough for how tough he is.”

The Beavers had more total yards and passing yards than the Gophers, but Minnesota dominated the run game against its non-conference opponent. The Gophers had 150 rushing yards to the Beavers’ 89. Smith was the leading rusher for Minnesota.

Brooks led the team in rushing with 709 yards and also had seven touchdowns last season. Smith was a close second in rushing with 670 yards and two touchdowns.

Smith said he was prepared to start in the opening game.

“I knew heading in that Shannon was banged up and he was going to be out,” said Smith. “So I just had to do my best and keep the team on my back as much as I could and I think I did an okay job with it.”

One of the ways Minnesota succeeded in the run game against the Beavers was through the use of the read option play. Both Smith, and redshirt senior quarterback Mitch Leidner, averaged 5 or more yards per carry against the Beavers defense.

Leidner amassed 76 rushing yards on 13 carries in the 30-23 victory over Oregon State. Leidner faked a handoff to Smith and ran in for the one-yard score to give Minnesota a seven-point lead near the end of the fourth quarter. Minnesota had four rushing touchdowns between Smith and Leidner, who each had two apiece.

“There were a few [reads] I missed on, no question there, but there were a couple I hit right on the nose and we were able to get a good play out of it,” Leidner said. “I’m lucky to have a good running back in Rodney Smith to make me right in some of those situations.”

The only other ball carriers for the Gophers, besides Leidner and Smith, were junior running back Kobe McCrary and senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky. McCrary looks to be the third option when Brooks gets back, but Smith had 25 carries to McCrary’s two. Claeys said the team would be better once Brooks returns from injury.

“We’ll give it to the hot hand, that’s what we’ll do, Claeys said. “But we’ll have two extremely good running backs in there.”