Minnesota running back Shannon Brooks isn’t flying under the radar anymore.
Brooks enters his sophomore season as a known commodity after rushing for 709 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. His performance let new head coach Tracy Claeys and the rest of the staff know he was a player who could deliver at any moment. It also showed his fellow backs they had another body to battle for playing time.
As a result of his play last year, Brooks was named to the watch list for this year’s Doak Walker Award, the annual accolade given to the nation’s top running back.
This level of attention on Brooks is a new experience for the 19-year-old. In fact, if it wasn’t for an eager graduate assistant and a Minnesota coach who just happened to be at the right place at the right time, there’s a good chance Brooks would have never put on the maroon and gold uniform.
Brooks played high school football at Pickens High School in Jasper, Ga, about an hour north of Atlanta. He was a defensive coordinator’s nightmare in his first three years, rushing for 3,564 yards and scoring 49 total touchdowns.
Despite the big plays, his offers were limited prior to his senior season in 2014. Local Group of 5 and FCS schools such as Furman and Kennesaw State came calling, and there was some interest from Georgia Tech, but for the most part the area’s premier teams didn’t pay the young back much mind.
Minnesota’s interest in Brooks began in May 2014. Receivers coach Brian Anderson was in Alpharetta when he got word that there was a player 45 minutes away he needed to check out.
“One of our grad assistants saw his name, pulled the video up, watched him and sent it to me,” Anderson said. “I found out where (Pickens) was and took a drive up there.”
Anderson offered Brooks as soon as he walked in the room, saying he reminded him of former Golden Gophers running back David Cobb. Four months after that, Brooks verbally committed.
Brooks joined Minnesota after a senior season in which he ran for 2,223 yards and led the state in rushing for most of the year. Still, there was plenty of unknowns ahead. He was a freshman learning a new playbook, doing it in a Big Ten conference packed with talent in a city more than a thousand miles from home.
He said he adjusted better day by day thanks in part to teammates such as Rodney Smith, who was also from Georgia. He also seemed increasingly comfortable as fall camp progressed, as he produced a few plays during preseason practice that caught coaches’ attentions.
“We had a pretty good idea that he could be a good player,” said Tracy Claeys, who was then Minnesota’s defensive coordinator. “We just didn’t know when that opportunity could come.”
That opportunity didn’t come right away. Brooks didn’t take any carries in the team’s first three games of the year, as Smith was at the top of the depth chart.
It was Minnesota’s fourth game against Ohio where Brooks got his chance.
“I remember coach (Jerry Kill) calling my name and telling me to go in,” Brooks said. “The first few runs, they were good, physical runs. After that, my confidence level went all the way up.”
Brooks had 10 carries for 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns – including the game-winning score – in the victory over the Bobcats.
Two games later, Brooks reeled off his finest performance, rushing for 176 yards and a touchdown in a victory over Purdue. The highlight of the game was Brooks’ 71-yard touchdown in which he shimmied and shook past six would-be tacklers.
The big plays against the Boilermakers earned Brooks the first of his three Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors and set the pace for the rest of his season. Brooks took the majority of the carries in the remaining seven games and his 709 rushing yards was the fourth-best season in school history for a freshman.
With a season under his belt, Brooks is looking to do more in 2016. He said he worked on his pass blocking during spring practice as well as catching the ball out of the backfield, an aspect that will be utilized more with new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson.
Claeys said he’s been happy with the work Brooks has put in during the offseason. Claeys also said he has emphasized making this year’s offensive line much more aggressive.
If that happens, opposing defenders will learn Brooks’ name in a hurry.
“He doesn’t need much, but if we can create a little more space there, I think he can have a really special season,” Claeys said. “They say there are those players you’re afraid to play against, and I’m just glad he’s a Gopher.”
Claeys said Brooks and the rest of the backs will be important in helping senior quarterback Mitch Leidner carry the offense to new heights. In order to prepare, Brooks has logged some miles during the summer, working on long-distance running in order to increase his endurance.
His workout commitment coupled with his improvements in the backfield could eventually extend his football career past Saturdays in Minnesota.
“He’ll be a guy that can continue to develop as a tailback in the Big Ten and may have an opportunity to play on Sundays,” Anderson said.
And that’s something that can’t be overlooked.
— By Jordan Hill of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution