A little more than a decade ago, the Minnesota Golden Gophers had one of the best running back tandems in the nation. It’s still early in the 2016 season, but they might have another dynamic duo capable of being considered at that same lofty level.
Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks went to high school about 75 miles apart, but it was a long way from the Minnesota winters. A couple of Georgia boys made the long trek to the Twin Cities, and are ready to be another outstanding one-two punch in the Big Ten.
“They remind me of when they had [Laurence] Maroney and [Marion] Barber here,” Minnesota wide receivers coach Brian Anderson told Land of 10. “You had Barber who ran with power and Maroney had the speed. I think a lot of people are seeing the similarities in those two kids, comparing them to a couple former Gophers running backs. I think the sky is the limit if we can do things with those guys on the field and keep them healthy.”
Anderson was responsible for helping to convince Smith and Brooks to leave the Atlanta area and migrate north. Smith is a redshirt sophomore, while Brooks came a year later. Both ran for more than 700 yards last season in their first taste of college football.
Smith had a strong junior season in high school, but it ended with a torn ACL. A high school coach whose team played against Smith’s crew at Mundy’s Mill High School in Jonesboro, Ga., which is just south of Atlanta, tipped off Anderson about a running back he needed to check out.
Anderson went to see Smith during a mid-October bye week in 2013. He was impressed, and the feeling was mutual.
“It was a big deal for me,” Smith said of Anderson’s visit. “All of the Power 5 schools really shied away from me [after the injury]. When I did get that offer, I wanted to commit right away. I had to talk it over with my parents and see how they felt about it.”
Brooks grew up closer to Atlanta but went to Pickens High School in Jasper, north of the city. Anderson said he might have been the only coach from a Power 5 school who went to visit Brooks. He also had an offer from Georgia Tech, but didn’t want to play in the triple option offense.
The two running backs didn’t know each other at all before college, but Brooks saw Smith and other Georgia natives on the Minnesota roster and it helped.
“It was going to be a big change, going from warm weather to a place where it could be negative-20,” Brooks said. “I was a little worried about it, but I knew they’d have some clothes for us up here.”
After a solid start to their college careers in 2015, Brooks missed the first two games this season with a foot injury. Smith and junior college transfer Kobe McCrary each had a game with more than 100 yards.
With Brooks back against Colorado State this past week, Smith and Brooks became the featured tandem with McCrary working in for a couple series. All three were effective, and quarterback Mitch Leidner can take off and run effectively as well.
Smith has 298 yards and five touchdowns in three games. Brooks had 85 yards on 13 carries against the Rams, and the undefeated Gophers are averaging 228.3 rushing yards per game.
“They are similar in size and stature, but they are two completely different backs,” Anderson said. “Shannon is more running with power and speed, while Rodney is more of a make-you-miss guy, but also with big-time speed. They compliment each other so well. I think it kept defenses off balance.”
Brooks is an energetic guy. His uncle raps, and it’s become part of his resume as well. Smith gave his seal of approval on Brooks’ musical talents.
“Shannon had one run [Saturday] where he ran someone over, and guys were all yelling, ‘He’s back! He’s back!’ He brings that juice,” Anderson said. “The team knows that at any given moment, he’s going to lay the boom on somebody.”
That also includes games away from the field, apparently. The pair spend plenty of time playing video games together, and Brooks is not shy about his prowess.
“I need to teach Rod how to play Madden a little better,” he said. “He is pretty sorry at Madden.”
Naturally, Smith deserved a chance to defend his honor.
“He was better than me at Madden 16 because I got in late,” Smith replied. “I got a head start on him with Madden 17, so I’m a little better than him right now.
“A lot of people might not know this, but I’m stronger than him. I bench more than him and I [power clean] more than him. He got me in the squat, but you put those big three lifts together and I’m stronger. We push each other. We don’t see it as competition, but we are trying to make each other better. We feed off each other, and that’s a great thing in the backfield.”
They aren’t the only Georgia Gophers on the roster. Anderson has had plenty of recruiting success in that state, including seven current Peach State players. Most are from the Atlanta suburbs, but defensive back Jalen Myrick went to school in Savannah, Ga.
“You’ve got to do your homework and build relationships,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t like it all happened the first time I went down there. Once you’ve got one and they start having success, it helps. We’re not going to beat SEC schools for those kids in the South, and I know that. We’ve got to go in and beat Conference USA, the American conference, we’ve got to beat those kinds of teams.”
Minnesota been one of the most balanced teams in the nation this season, averaging more than 200 yards passing and rushing. This weekend they face Penn State at Beaver Stadium, and it looks like a golden opportunity for the Gophers running backs.
The Nittany Lions played last week without all three starting linebackers. One new starter, Brandon Smith, was ejected early on a questionable targeting call. His replacement, Jan Johnson, also sustained an injury. Michigan ran with relative impunity in a 49-10 win.
Penn State is last in the conference in rush defense, yielding nearly 214 yards per game. For Minnesota to take a step forward in Tracy Claeys’ first full season as head coach, this is a game the Gophers need to win to keep pace with the top teams in the Big Ten West.
They could lean heavily on their talented collection of running backs to do so.
“We’re planning to have seasons where we both rush for 1,000 yards. That’s the goal,” Smith said. “The big goal is we want to contribute to the team bringing a Big Ten championship back to the Minneapolis area. We know it hasn’t been done in a while, but we want to help make the team better and make it happen.”