Last season against Rutgers the Gophers offensive line made a hole so big for Rodney Smith that he could have rolled his red Dodge Avenger right through as he went untouched for a six-yard touchdown.
“He came up to us and said, ‘keep that up all day,’” senior offensive guard Vincent Calhoun recalled. “People say that the offensive line doesn’t get a lot of credit but we have the type of guys on the team that respect and love us. There are always times when the offensive line gets credit from the running backs. That is the type of guys they are. It makes the job easier and more fun.”
The first thing Shannon Brooks does on the sideline after every drive is go right up to his offensive line.
“After every drive I just go thank them,” Brooks said. “If they make a hole for me I make sure to go and tell them that and smack them on the helmet. If they miss something, I tell them ‘you’re better than that, let’s go respond right now.’ Small things like that can go a long way.”
That kind of relationship between the running backs and offensive line has helped the Gophers produce a running attack that strikes fear into opposing defenses.
Last year, Smith rushed 240 times (tenth most in school history in a single season) for 1,158 yards (16th most in school history in a single season) and 16 touchdowns (third most in school history in a single season) to become the 20th Gopher ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. In 2016, Brooks missed the first three games with an injury, but rushed 138 times for 650 yards and five touchdowns and added two receiving scores.
Smith and Brooks have the potential to be two of the most elite running backs in school history.
In 27 career games, Smith has rushed 450 times for 1,996 yards, which ranks 16th all-time in school history. With four more yards he will become the 14th Gopher ever to rush for 2,000 career yards. In 24 games, Brooks has rushed 292 times for 1,519 yards, which ranks 30th in program history.
On top of that the Gophers have a solid third option in Kobe McCrary. The 240-pound back rushed 39 times for 246 yards and three touchdowns and also caught two passes for 17 yards in 2016. He rushed 17 times for 176 yards (10.4 average) and two touchdowns against Indiana State last season and his 176 yards were the fourth-most ever by a Gopher at TCF Bank Stadium.
Having three running backs means sharing carries, but that is not something that bothers the trio.
“We are all cool,” McCrary said. “You can see us at practice clowning around and dancing. We just like to have fun.”
“The running backs, as a group, have an awesome relationship,” Brooks added. “We all joke around but we also have times when we have serious talks with each other. It’s pretty cool to know where every guy has come from and what drives him to play football. I enjoy getting hyped on the sidelines when other guys make plays.”
Having dynamic running backs makes life easier for the offensive line. Just ask senior offensive lineman Garrison Wright.
“It is amazing to be able to block for some of the best backs in the Big Ten. They are as talented as it gets,” Wright said. “They get a lot of yards even if they are getting hit. Our relationship is great. They understand that they need us and we need them.”
While the running back position is veteran loaded, the offensive line is a mix of fresh faces and veterans. Because of that veterans like Calhoun and Wright are putting it on themselves to improve the line’s chemistry.
“It starts up front with the offensive line. Everybody on the same page, working together,” Calhoun said.
“It all starts with how our offensive line gels together. It starts with us up front,” Wright echoed.
McCrary agrees that a strong running game starts with the five guys in front of him when he gets the ball.
“Just having a physical offensive line that knows what they are doing is key. When Shannon, Rodney and myself see that, we just hit the hole and go,” he said.
The Gophers started the season with a right side made up of tackle Nick Connelly and Conner Olson, who were both making their first career starts. For Olson, it was his first ever playing time. Wright and Calhoun are two of the most tenured in the group, but joined the team last season after playing in junior college. The line has seen limited time together, as Weyler and Wright both missed spring practice while recovering from offseason surgery. In fact, the Gophers had only four healthy offensive linemen at times during spring practice.
“I have the most games under my belt,” Wright said. “It is important for me to know how to handle situations and be able to help the guys who haven’t played as much. They look to me and they look to Jared Weyler as guys who have played to show them how to play and how to perform the way we are supposed to.”
The offensive line has the goal of playing as one unit rather than five separate players moving forward. Brooks knows it is going to be important to keep supporting them to sustain Minnesota’s historically strong running game in 2017.
“Those guys mean everything,” Brooks said.