Why running back Mohamed Ibrahim may be Minnesota's most important player at present
MINNEAPOLIS — Even before all this madness, the man they call “Mo” in Dinkytown knew what was coming.
Gone was a deep stable of running backs — a fixture of Minnesota football spanning decades and coaching eras. In its place was Mohamed Ibrahim, the lead thoroughbred, and a bunch of colts.
“I definitely have to step up now,” Ibrahim said back before the season. “Now it’s on my plate.”
Now, we’re one week into Big Ten football during the COVID-19 era. The Gophers are 0-1 after a blowout loss against Michigan. They’re missing 2 starting offensive linemen. They’re down to second- and third-string kickers and punters. And they’re fielding a defense with 7 new starters that looked like maybe even more of a rebuilding project than anticipated against the Wolverines.
No disrespect to quarterback Tanner Morgan or Rashod Bateman, but Ibrahim might now be the team’s most important player.
If the redshirt junior’s 140 yards on 26 carries is any indication, the ground game will go as far as Ibrahim can take it. Last year, he shared carries with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, the No. 2 and No. 11 rushers in school history.
That’s been the formula here — “a pair and a spare,” coach P.J. Fleck calls it. Two tandem bell cows and a third wheel for depth and a change-up now and then.
Laurence Maroney split time with Marion Barber in the early 2000s. David Cobb had Rodrick Williams Jr. to help out when Jerry Kill was head coach.
With over 1,900 yards, Ibrahim ranks 16th on Minnesota’s all-time chart — thanks in large part to his predecessors’ tutelage, he says.
“I was always leaning on them,” he said. “Those two guys, they were two veterans. … I’ve got to understand that what they taught me, I’ve got to pass it down.”
He’s also got to make sure first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. and co-OC Matt Simon’s scheme is balanced enough to open things up for Morgan, Bateman and the Gophers’ down-the-field, play-action passing attack.
And until linemen Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap Jr. are healthy, there’s more pressure on Ibrahim to read holes correctly and, when possible, create them for himself.
“He is the leader,” Fleck said. “His energy is infectious.”
Ibrahim’s ability even transfers to the other side of the ball.
The more Minnesota is able to control things on the ground and extend drives, the less it has to rely on a defense that allowed 8.6 yards per play against the Wolverines.
With the three-headed monster of Ibrahim, Brooks and Smith last season, the Gophers averaged 179 yards on the ground — good for 6th in the B1G and 46th nationally. Not astounding, but definitely effective.
Especially when you consider how much success Morgan had on play action.
Ibrahim also does things that don’t show up on the stat sheet — sprinting downfield to block on short passing plays, pass protection and, perhaps most importantly, providing guidance for the next crop of backs.
Especially considering any one of them could be thrust into duty any time due to COVID-19.
“It’s really good to have Mo teaching those young guys how it should look,” Fleck said. “I’m really proud of him. He’s not only one of the best football players we have, he’s also one of the best people.”
Redshirt freshmen Treyson Potts and Cam Wiley both showed flashes Saturday. Overall, Fleck likes the team’s depth at running back.
But it’s Ibrahim’s group right now. And in a lot of ways, it’s his team.
“There’s a tradition in that room,” Ibrahim said. “It’s a standard we always have to maintain. Any little thing, if it’s running to the ball, if it’s protecting the ball, anything like that, you have to pass it down to the younger guys and make sure they’re all on the same level. We all know that in this running back room anybody can play at any given game.
“We can’t lose a beat.”