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How could the Gophers use all of their running backs in 2019?

01/30/2019, 1:00pm CST
By Daniel House

This season, the Gophers will have a very unique situation at the running back position. Minnesota’s roster will feature three different running backs who have led the team in rushing at least once since 2015. The season-ending injuries suffered by veteran running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, gave young players like Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams an opportunity to gain valuable experience. As freshmen, Ibrahim and Williams combined for 1,662 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Now, Minnesota will feature a backfield loaded with talent during the 2019 season. After recovering from injuries, seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks will return to the field for one last stint in the maroon and gold. 

It means the Gophers will have some serious star power in the backfield next season. Between the four running backs, they will return 1,328 career carries, 6,503 yards and 52 touchdowns. If you factor in wildcat quarterback Seth Green into the mix, 282 yards and eight touchdowns are added to the above output. It’s safe to say the Gophers will have a dynamic running game to pair with a passing attack that took a major leap last season. 

Another year of development for Ibrahim leaves many wondering how the Gophers will divide carries next season. Ibrahim rushed for the second-most yards ever for a Gophers freshman, including nine touchdowns and a whopping 5.74 yards per carry average. He became the first Gophers’ freshman since Laurence Maroney to accumulate five 100-yard games in a single season. He also rushed for 224 yards and two touchdowns in the Quick Lane Bowl. His punishing running style, balance and ability to accumulate yards after contact, separate him from many other rushers.

It’s going to be hard for Minnesota to keep him off the field this season, even with Smith and Brooks returning. The good news: each of these running backs have a different skill set. Rodney Smith has a versatile rushing style and is one of the more elusive and agile backs in the Big Ten. The Gophers can find ways to flex him all over the field, including into the slot for receptions. Shannon Brooks has the short range quickness, agility and physicality to pop off highlight reels runs. In last year's win vs. Indiana, everyone saw how the offense clicked at another level with Brooks healthy. Finally, Mohamed Ibrahim’s toughness and physicality adds another element to a backfield filled with diversity and dynamic weapons. Not only that, but the offensive line returns three key players and inserts top recruit Curtis Dunlap Jr. into the permanent rotation. 

When the inside zone running game is firing on all cylinders, the Gophers’ offense is tough to stop because they have tough matchups on the outside. Teams face a tough predicament. Do you play two deep safeties to take away the intermediate and vertical passing game, or stack the box to prevent big running plays? You saw this in the bowl game against Georgia Tech as the wide receivers did an excellent job of physically blocking the perimeter and popping safeties in the second level.  

So how do the coaches get all of these running backs involved? There’s a few things to consider. First, it starts with a simple division of carries. If they can develop a rotation to keep legs fresh throughout the game, defenses will have a tough time finding an answer. With the run-pass option (RPO) game and the physicality of Minnesota’s zone running game, the Gophers can play chess with defenses. During 13 games last season, Minnesota averaged 40 carries per game. Those could be split between three running backs, but you have to factor Seth Green into the equation, too. Perhaps he becomes a more permanent mismatch wide receiver, but the Wildcat package added a nice wrinkle to the offense. Teams aren’t often setting a specific amount of carries they’d like a player to receive. They are looking at the flow of the game and matchups. One week, the elusiveness and ability to get Rodney Smith in space via the outside zone game, might exploit a weakness. The next game, the physicality of Mohamed Ibrahim may expose a team that struggles to tackle fundamentally sound. 

Ibrahim also feels like the perfect running back to insert in the fourth quarter when teams are starting to get tired and tackling fundamentals waver. The Gophers can use a dash of each running back and occasionally utilize the perimeter rushing skills of Bryce Williams, too. When depth is prominent at the running back position, coaches will find a way to use the talent they have. They can move all of these players across the field to create mismatches or use motion to get the defenses’ eyes wandering. 

There also is a personnel grouping the team could implement to get all three of them on the field at the same time. In 2010, current Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen was Mike Gundy’s offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. The team featured heavy depth at the running back position, so they implemented the diamond formation. It involves using three running backs in the backfield and expands off of the basic pistol formation. They've continued to use this under Gundy's leadership, even deploying it last year:



There are a few different ways a team can create some havoc out of this formation. First, the amount of misdirection can confuse defenses and allows for screens, reverses, pre-snap motion and so much more. Oklahoma heavily used this formation under Bob Stoops, as well:



There are also ways to add to this formation, especially if you have dynamic spark plug players at the wide receiver spot. Essentially, there are ways coaches can spice up the basic principles of the "diamond." They can motion a wide receiver into the set and be a part of everything, too:




Although the best way to run this set is with at least one fullback, there are instances where three pure running backs have been successful. This is especially the case when you look at the skill set diversity of Minnesota’s personnel at the position. It also can be run from a variety of blocking schemes (zone or gap) to account for the specific talent you have on the roster. There are opportunities to use jet sweeps, traditional zone-read style looks or options within this set. The blocking schemes can be complicated and require a coaching staff with creative minds. I highly recommend reading this book to learn the basic principles and possibilities within this set. In terms of throwing on the outside, if you have a dynamic wide receiver on the outside, such as Rashod Bateman or Tyler Johnson, this formation creates 1-on-1 matchups on the perimeter. It involves longer developing routes, but can be effective when trying to run play-action out of this formation. 

Minnesota could possibly find a way to use this set, especially in short yardage or goal line situations. Many recall how North Carolina used quarterback Marquise Williams in the diamond formation. Perhaps the Gophers could implement this type of package in short yardage situations or on the goal line. Quarterback Seth Green fits the mold of this formation and teams would be forced to handle a plethora of options inside the red zone. In this situation, the Gophers could use Green, Smith, Brooks and Ibrahim all at once. There are subtle tweaks you can add to this formation to make it really deadly. It shouldn't be used much from 20-yard-line to 20-yard-line, but this example from North Carolina and Marquise Williams illustrates the power of read-option style looks within this formation. In this instance, they use a tight end to help, but that's certainly something Minnesota implement by using just two running backs instead. 



The Gophers could also have Shannon Brooks or Rodney Smith on the field with Ko Kieft in an H-Back role if they need more blocking help. That's my only question regarding the ability of Minnesota to use the trio of running backs together. However, with so many option wrinkles to run out of this and the physicality of those backs, it feels like aspects of this formation may work. As you can see, when analyzing Oklahoma's approach, there is room for creativity. Other teams like the Carolina Panthers have also used modified versions of this formation in the past. 

Overall, there is a situation where the Gophers could potentially have Ibrahim, Brooks and Smith on the field together to cause extreme deception. I’m not saying this is something Minnesota should run frequently, but it’s a package they could install to add some diversity to the scheme, while taking advantage of a loaded running back room. Keeping things basic might be best, but it’s something worth considering. 

One could argue when factoring in the wide receivers, this is the best depth Minnesota has featured at the skill positions in recent memory. When considering this, it leaves the coaches with room for creativity this offseason.

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