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Gophers look to replace void left by All-American running back Mohamed Ibrahim

Sean Tyler, a transfer from Western Michigan, and Bryce Williams provide the most experience in a running backs room that includes five freshman and one sophomore.

MINNEAPOLIS — For the past decade, there's never been much concern about the University of Minnesota’s rushing attack.

With running backs like David Cobb, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, the Gophers ground game was in good hands. Then in 2018, a pair of season-ending injuries to Minnesota’s top two backs – Smith and Brooks – opened the door for redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim to carry the load.

Ibrahim had shown flashes, including a 74-yard burst in the season-opener against New Mexico State, but nobody anticipated what he would go on to do that season.

Ibrahim rushed for the second-most yards in school history by a freshman – second only to Darrell Thompson – and was named MVP of the 2018 Quick Lane Bowl after a 224-yard, two-touchdown performance. It was the first of several accolades the Baltimore native garnered over the next five years as he left campus as the Gophers’ all-time leading rusher.

Now, for the first time since 2018, Ibrahim won’t be part of the Gophers’ ground attack, and with Trey Potts – the Gophers second-leading rusher in 2022 – transferring to Penn State, Minnesota’s backfield will look quite a bit different this season.

Seniors Sean Tyler, a transfer from Western Michigan, and Bryce Williams provide the most experience in a running back room that includes five freshmen and one sophomore. Williams was the third-leading rusher for the Gophers in 2022, but was used primarily on third downs. Tyler rushed for 1,097 and seven touchdowns last season, but a 1,000-yard season in the Mid-American Conference isn’t quite the same as a 1,000-yard season in a Power Five conference.

Credit: AP
Western Michigan running back Sean Tyler rushes during the first half of the Quick Lane Bowl game against Nevada on Dec. 27, 2021, in Detroit.

“It’s the execution of the offense and the efficiency of the offense,” said Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck. “That’s what we want to be able to see with what we do and how we do it. There’s different people out there with different strengths, but that doesn’t mean the system changes.”

Whoever is carrying the ball will have the benefit of running behind two Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selections – left tackle Aireontae Ersery and right tackle Quinn Carroll – but the interior of the line remains a question. Center John Michael Schmitz was the anchor in the middle last season, but he’ll be lining up on Sundays as a member of the New York Giants. Nathan Boe, who saw time at center last season against Syracuse, is in line to replace the First-Team All-American and says he’s excited about the challenge.

“It’s what I’ve been looking forward to since the beginning of winter workouts and it’s been on the front of my mind every day,” Boe said. “… I’m excited to go out there and represent the state of Minnesota, play for my teammates, play for my coaches and play for the fans of Minnesota.”

The Gophers’ schedule will be favorable for a team looking to establish a running game as their first two conference games will be against Nebraska and Northwestern, the two worst run defenses in the Big Ten last season. However, the wrinkles will need to be ironed out by Oct. 7 when Minnesota hosts a Michigan team that finished 2022 with the No. 1 run defense in the conference.

“We still have our same philosophical beliefs and that will never change,” said Fleck. “I believe in how you win football games – you’ve got to be able to control the ball, you’ve got to take care of the ball, you still have to be able to run the football, you’ve got to play great defense, you’ve got be able to win situational football.”

The season kicks off against the Cornhuskers on Thursday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. at Huntington Bank Stadium.

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