Despite departures, Gophers look promising for running back

When Kirk Ciarrocca returning to the Gophers as offensive coordinator in early December, he was back with a team that had a potential embarrassment of riches to run into in 2022.

Mohammad Ibrahim2020 third-team All-America winner, was on the mend after an Achilles tendon injury that ended his 2021 season in Game 1. Trey Pott was back with the team after an undisclosed injury forced him to be hospitalized for six days in October. And two freshmen who stepped up and combined to rush for 1,523 yards and 10 touchdowns, Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irvingseemed like a great thunder and lightning duo for the future.

A lot can change in four months.

Thomas, the offensive MVP after rushing for 144 yards in the Gophers’ Guaranteed Rate Bowl victory over West Virginia, listed his name on the NCAA transfer portal six days after the bowl game and found himself in Kansas. On Friday, Irving announced plans to list his name on the transfer portal.

With just over a week of spring training, the Gophers are adjusting to the changes in running backs, and Ciarrocca is confident things will work out.

“I’m not worried because they’re in good hands with Kenni burns” Ciarrocca said, referring to the Gophers running backs coach. “They will continue to improve every day.”

* Ibrahim, the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year, is trying to regain the form that saw him average 153.7 rushing yards per game during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. During spring training, he trains alone before dawn and works on the sidelines during training as he observes the Islamic holiday of Ramadan in which he fasts from sunrise to sunset each day.

* Potts took over as the Gophers returned last year from Ibrahim’s injury, rushing for 552 yards and six touchdowns in five games. He wasn’t allowed to make contact, but he looked lively in non-contact practice reps.

* Fifth year player Bryce Williams started three games last year before suffering a leg injury and missing the final five games of the season. He is back in good health.

“Mo and Trey are fine,” Ciarrocca said. “Bryce is fine. They’re all better.”

With Ibrahim and Potts limited, the bulk of the runs in Tuesday’s practice which was open to the media went to redshirt freshman Williams. Jordan Nubinsecond year in red shirt Kendall Moore and real freshman Zach Evans.

An early registrant from Rockwall-Heath, Texas, high school, the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Evans quickly caught the eye of his coordinator.

“The kid I knew nothing about was the rookie, Zach,” Ciarrocca said. “I’m very, very impressed with his potential, how good a full-back he could be one day.”

Evans, ranked 10th running back in the nation in the 2022 recruiting class by, could have a chance to fill the void left by the departures of Thomas and Irving. Evans’ high school resume is impressive, rushing for 1,957 yards, 26 TDs as a senior and 3,971 yards in his final three seasons.

“I’m very excited about this group,” the Gophers center said Jean-Michel Schmitz, a sixth-year senior and the only returning 2021 starter on the offensive line. “You’ve got Mo, a great leader at the top of this room. You’ve got a few guys coming back. And Zach Evans is definitely a guy to watch.”

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