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Gophers running back Smith has all-purpose yards record in sight

Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Rodney Smith carries the ball in a a game against Nebraska last season. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers' most-important offensive player can break one of the football program's top records this fall.

Redshirt senior running back Rodney Smith has 3,850 all-purpose yards, putting him within striking distance of Darrell Thompson's all-time mark of 5,109 set from 1986-89.

If Smith maintains his average of 104 all-purpose yards per game across his first three seasons, he will come just 11 yards short of Thompson's mark.

Beyond his three-year rushing average of 935 yards per season, here are some factors in Smith's pursuit of the record:

  • Smith has missed only one game in his Minnesota career and played in 37. He is the only proven player in the Gophers' backfield, with running mate, Shannon Brooks, rehabbing a leg injury from winter workouts, and inexperienced freshmen Bryce Williams, Nolan Edmonds and Mohamed Ibrahim as backups. "We have to use him in a lot of different areas, and we have to be creative with him. But again, it's not overloading him," coach P.J. Fleck said Saturday at the Gophers' first open practice of fall camp. "There is a balance there."
  • Smith had a career-low 107 receiving yards in 2017, but he appears to factor more into the Gophers' passing game this fall. He had only 17 receptions in 2017, or 1.4 per game, but that could triple this fall. During Saturday's practice, the Gophers often threw downfield to Smith, who leaped and brought down a 20-yard pass from quarterback Tanner Morgan. When asked about catching four or five passes a game, Smith said Tuesday: "I believe I can. I've worked on it a lot this summer, and we've implemented some things in the scheme to get playmakers out in space, whether that is in the backfield or out at slot. I definitely think I can if that is what the coaches ask of me."
  • Smith has 626 career kickoff return yards, all in the past two seasons. But with unknown commodities behind him in the backfield, it's unclear how much Fleck will use him in that role this season.

Outside of that record, Smith will look to improve on the three rushing touchdowns he scored in 2017, a far cry from the 16 scores he had in 2016.

"I definitely didn't finish a lot of runs," Smith said. "That was on me, so that was definitely an emphasis on me in the offseason."

QB impressions

The quarterback battle between Morgan and Zack Annexstad doesn't feel like it's between a pair of freshmen, Fleck said. Morgan is an early-enrollee redshirt freshman, while Annexstad is an early-enrollee true freshmen.

"I don't sense any freshmen nerves, anxiety," Fleck said. "They don't make freshmen mistakes. They make mistakes; they're not making freshmen mistakes. They are making 400 level mistakes."

This early assessment comes after only three practices, with the first full-padded practices set for next week.

"We aren't even close to where we can play a game yet," Fleck said. "But as a coach you sit there and go, 'Oh, boy, this is going to be a long year' (or) you sit there and go, 'OK, we've got a chance.' "

Precaution with Sapp

Gophers true freshman defensive back Benny Sapp III sat out Saturday's practice. He wore a brace on his right knee, which has endured multiple injuries, including to his meniscus near the beginning of his senior season at Eden Prairie in 2017.

"He kind of tweaked his knee," Fleck said. "Nothing serious, but I want to make sure that we are way over-protective with him because of his history than aggressive. It's a little bit precautionary more than anything, because he's shown he can play."

Briefly

The Gophers did not have any players report late to fall camp. ... Freshman receiver Erik Gibson was limited with an injury in Saturday's practice. .... After seven years, head equipment manager Kyle Gergely has served his last day at Minnesota; he will take a position at Purdue, where he's previously worked. ... Hundreds of fans paced into the indoor practice facility for Saturday's open practice. The next open practice is Friday, where fans are encouraged to bring diapers to be donated to Diaper Bank of Minnesota.

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