Work ethic, leadership has transformed Mohamed Ibrahim into one of college football's best running backs
A lot of sound typically follows Mohamed Ibrahim when he’s on a football field. Typically, it’s the repeating clacking of helmets and shoulder pads as he powers his way through multiple defenders as he falls across the goal line that echoes throughout a stadium.
Not much noise accompanied Ibrahim as he sat near the end zone at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday during B1G Media Days. The soft-spoken senior doesn’t possess the boisterous, cocky attitude you might expect to see from the reigning B1G Running Back of the Year or a player described as a “bowling ball going downhill with razorblades,” by head coach P.J. Fleck.
Ibrahim is humble yet confident. He’s quiet but forceful with his words. In a lot of ways, Ibrahim’s running style is a reflection of his personality.
“He’s not the biggest guy, not the strongest guy, not the fastest guy but he is one of the toughest guys, I think, in the country,” Fleck said. “I’m happy he’s on our team.”
When Minnesota takes the field on Thursday, Sept. 2 against Ohio State at Huntington Bank Stadium, it will have one of the best players in the conference occupying the backfield. That’s not how Ibrahim’s journey started with the Golden Gophers, though.
The two-time 1,000-yard rusher began his career buried on the depth chart just trying to nudge his way into a running back room that had reached maximum capacity. As a true freshman, Ibrahim knew he’d have to earn a spot on the depth chart and fight for carries.
Ibrahim committed to becoming the hardest working player wearing a Minnesota jersey. Once Fleck saw that level of buy-in from his freshman running back, he knew great things were ahead.
Sift through film and thumb over the statistics and it’s pretty easy to see why Ibrahim was named the B1G Running Back of the Year at the end of a 2020 season. He rushed for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns on 201 carries in only seven games.
Ibrahim has great vision and good speed but it’s really his power that separates him from the rest of ball carriers in the conference. Asking defenders to stop the 5-foot-10, 210-pound human bulldozer is like boarding up the windows on a house with spare cardboard during hurricane season.
A lot has changed over the course of Ibrahim’s five years in Minneapolis.
When he committed to Minnesota, Ibrahim measured 5-foot-9 and weighed in at 178 pounds. He was low on the depth chart behind proven backs Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary. As a freshman, Ibrahim didn’t take a single carry in the regular season for the Gophers.
Instead, he was taking his lumps on the scout team.
“Most people don’t know this, but in 2017 he was the Scout Team Player of the Year on our team,” Fleck said. “He took every rep of practice of the scout team. Every rep. We didn’t have many bodies in 2017. He took every rep and got his butt kicked, like a pinball.”
Ibrahim’s time in the pinball machine yielded some impressive results relatively quickly. In 2018, because of injuries to Smith and Brooks, the redshirt freshman was thrust into the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and charged with leading the rushing attack.
When the season ended, Ibrahim was the B1G’s fourth-most productive ball carrier, totaling 1,160 yards and 9 touchdowns in 10 games. He rushed for at least 98 yards in each of the last five games, hit the 100-yard mark three times and closed out the year with a 224-yard, 2-touchdown performance in a 34-10 victory over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.
All that work paid off in a short period of time.
“I think it’s very important to put your head down and work,” Ibrahim said. “Without the work, I wouldn’t even be here, you wouldn’t know who I am.”
Three years have passed since Ibrahim’s breakout season in 2018. He’s piled up 2,840 yards and 31 touchdowns on the ground, garnered All-B1G First-Team honors and was a Third-Team All-American selection. The running back will be an outside contender for the Heisman Trophy entering the 2021 campaign.
All of that might be satisfying for a player who was getting knocked around every single day just a few years ago on the scout team. But Fleck says nothing has changed in Ibrahim’s approach.
“If you guys ever come to practice, he’s one of the hardest workers I have ever seen at any level of college football, high school football or professional level. There’s not many like him,” Fleck said. “But that’s Mohamed. He’s gonna earn everything he gets. Nothing’s promised, but the harder you work the luckier you get. He is who he is. He went from Scout Team Player of the Year to B1G Running Back of the Year in three years. I’d say that’s pretty special.”
The best player on every team isn’t always the one best-suited to be a captain. That’s not the case with Ibrahim. A fifth-year member of Minnesota’s program, he embraces the opportunity to lead by example.
He also understands that leadership isn’t defined by a rushing average of more than 150 yards per game.
“Leadership is more than just on the field, it’s about off the field and just making sure these guys are developing in the right way,” Ibrahim said. “I don’t want to lead them in the wrong direction and they think it’s the right way. Always being on my best behavior, always showing them the right things to do.”
Maybe the best way Ibrahim has led his teammates is through work ethic.
Part of the reason Minnesota’s offense is expected to be so explosive in 2021 is because of the depth in the backfield. Behind Ibrahim, the Gophers will return Trey Potts, Cam Wiley, Bryce Williams and welcome newcomer Ky Thomas. None of those guys have seen many touches during their time in Minneapolis.
Fleck can see they’ve learned quite a bit from the leader in the running back room, though. That gives him more faith in what he has backing up Ibrahim.
“You’re not gonna outwork that guy, because he outworks himself from the day before,” Fleck said. “And he’s taught that to all the backs.”
Tanner Morgan is another who has been charged with serving in a leadership role for the Gophers’ offense. A three-year starter and one of the top returning quarterbacks in the B1G, he also received praise from his head coach.
But Morgan was quick to point Ibrahim’s ability to take charge of the team.
“I think we lead very well together.” Morgan said. “Mo is very good at holding our team accountable, but he’s quick to bring a smile.
“Everyone’s a leader on our team and Mo is one of the best.”
When Minnesota takes the field against Ohio State to open the season, only one thing will be on Ibrahim’s mind: winning. As cliché as it sounds, the Gophers’ battering ram is only focused on helping his team.
He has no personal goals. There isn’t anything individually he’s looking to accomplish. His mind is set on making a return trip to Lucas Oil Stadium in December.
“Everybody wants to win their side and go to the B1G Championship Game,” Ibrahim said. “That is our goal. But at the end of the day, it’s about getting better and better each week, each day. Changing our best and getting better as a team.”
Ibrahim’s unselfishness has helped build trust among his teammates. His presence in the backfield serves as reassurance for Morgan, who also needs to have a strong season in order for Minnesota book a stay in Indianapolis the week after Thanksgiving.
“There’s just a great confidence you have when you see him back there and you know the things he can do in all facets of the game,” Morgan said. “You tell Mo to go, he’ll go. I know he’ll do whatever it takes for the team to be successful.”
Last year, “whatever it takes” meant toting the ball more than 28 times per game. Ibrahim piled up 30 carries or more in three games during Minnesota’s 3-4 campaign and registered 41 touches in a loss to Maryland. He rushed for 100 yards in all seven games and eclipsed the 200-yard threshold twice.
Ibrahim was Minnesota’s workhorse in 2020. Despite the carries piling up, he never slowed down. It’s another testament to his incredible work ethic and the desire he has to take the Gophers to new heights.
With Morgan back under center, a talented group of up-and-coming receivers and arguably the best returning offensive line in the B1G, the Gophers shouldn’t have to depend on their premier back nearly as much as they did a year ago.
But if there comes a point when Ibrahim has to take control of the game, he’ll step up. Even if it requires running until the tank is out of gas.
“If that means carrying the ball 70 times then I’ll do it,” Ibrahim said. “I’m willing to do anything for my team.”