Gophers Are Running Out of Running Backs

AP Photo: Nam Y. Huh

It was another dominant performance by the Minnesota Gophers running back room on Saturday in a convincing win on the road over last year’s Big Ten West champions, the Northwestern Wildcats. Unfortunately, that same group lost another comrade to an undisclosed lower body injury this week, leaving freshmen Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas as the only available running backs on roster.

Entering the 2021 season, running back was one of the deepest and most competitive position groups on the team. It started with All Big Ten back, Mohamed Ibrahim. He lasted three quarters before leaving the opener vs Ohio State with a season-ending leg injury. In those three quarters, Mo racked up 163 yards and 2 touchdowns on 20 carries (5.1 YPC).

Potts Down, Wiley Transfers

So 2022’s RB1, Trey Potts, was forced to take the reigns a season early. He proved to be more than ready and was in route to his own All Big Ten type performance after three starts. But then @ Purdue, Potts suffered his own season-ending injury; one that kept him in an Indiana hospital for six days after Minnesota defeated the Boilermakers that Saturday.

Thankfully, Trey was able to return to Minnesota and, last we heard, was recovering well. In the five games Potts appeared in this season (112 carries), he ran for 552 yards and 6 touchdowns, posting 4.9 yards per carry average.

Then to thin the room even more, Cam Wiley, entered the transfer portal after falling to the bottom of the RB depth chart entering the bye week. If made based on future playing time, that decision by Wiley sure feels premature given the opportunity he’d surely have going forward.

Williams Out, Freshmen Remain

Wiley would have been forced into action today at Northwestern, because Minnesota lost another running back. This time, it was redshirt senior Bryce Williams who had to be carted off the field after a huge 3rd down catch and run that ended in a collision near the sideline. Williams never returned. His status going forward is unknown.

The young 4-star talents remaining for the Gophers have already proven themselves worthy Big Ten backs. Redshirt freshman, Ky Thomas and true freshman, Mar’Keise Irving both went for 100+ yards against the Cornhuskers last week and helped stomp Colorado earlier in the year. Both kids went crazy again vs the Wildcats on Saturday.

  • (FR) Mar’Keise Irving: 19 CAR | 110 YDS | 2 TD | 5.8 AVG
  • (RSFR) Ky Thomas: 21 CAR | 106 YDS | 5.0 AVG

PJ Fleck imagined Ky and Bucko being one of the best 1-2 punches in the Big Ten eventually… but not because they were thrust into action in 2021. But it helps when the offensive line is blocking at the elite level the Gophers’ is.

Emergency LeCaptain

So, the concern isn’t about the reserve running back options PJ Fleck currently has to choose from. The worry is focused on what happens if Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving were to get banged up like the upperclassmen who have fallen before them? Who are the Gophers going to play at running back? It’s a legitimate question.

Well, we got that answer late in the game on Saturday. Backup Sophomore LINEBACKER, Derik LeCaptain, replaced Thomas and Irving in the offensive backfield for the last Minnesota drive vs Northwestern, when they led 34-14. He even got a carry. A carry that he took to the house.

Don’t be overly surprised. LeCaptain was quite the running back in his high school days. Sure, your uncle says that same thing every Christmas… but for Derik, it’s true and there’s video evidence to prove it.

Let’s Just Stay Healthy

Could Derik LeCaptain be a competent power five running back behind the Minnesota Gophers offensive line? Maybe… but I’d rather not find out. If Bryce Williams is going to be out for any extended period of time, PJ Fleck and company needs to find ways to take reps off what would be his only two remaining backs.

Whether that’s more Wildcat runs by Cole Kramer, more wide receiver runs/swing passes or just more throwing volume for Tanner Morgan, Mike Sanford needs to come up with a game plan that has the best chance of maintaining the health of Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan