Gophers’ Mo Ibrahim was already good; film study made him even better
After losing the 2021 season to injury, the tailback joined his position coaches in the film room
MINNEAPOLIS — It’s dark inside Gophers offensive line coach Brian Callahan’s office on Monday mornings, but silhouettes inside show it is not empty. Assistant coaches are just watching game film in a movie theater-like setting.
Last year, one special guest was among those obscured figures: Mo Ibrahim.
After the star running back’s season ended with a torn Achilles tendon in the opener against Ohio State, running backs coach Kenni Burns invited Ibrahim into the strategy sessions for how Minnesota’s running game will approach its opponent that week. He got a behind-the-scenes look at game-planning, the dialogue between Burns and Callahan and how that blends into what schemes and plays they will take to offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and eventually run on Saturday.
“That helped (Ibrahim) sit back and be like, ‘Holy cow,’ ” Burns told the Pioneer Press this week. “There’s so much that goes into this, that maybe (he) didn’t even know about because you always see it through your lens.”
Burns extended a similar invitation to Rodney Smith when the now-former Gophers running back tore his ACL in 2018. “That was really beneficial for Rodney,” Burns said. “He kind of started that trend.”
Ibrahim set a new program record for total touchdowns (46) with a three-TD game in last week’s 31-0 win over Rutgers. He goes into Saturday’s game against Nebraska only 164 yards behind Smith for second on the Gophers’ all-time rushing list. Darrell Thompson, whom Ibrahim passed in the TD category last weekend, sits in first with 4,654 yards.
Ibrahim is averaging 136.4 yards a game and would need to put up just slightly more (139.2 per game) over his final five games — assuming Minnesota reaches a bowl game — to challenge Thompson’s once-untouchable record.
Smith and Ibrahim have contrasting styles, Smith elusive and faster, Ibrahim more powerful. But they shared a studious nature. Smith has seen that from afar.
“Mo takes pride in breaking down film and understanding his opponents,” Smith said. “I think that shows up for him a lot in the game because we all know Mo is Mo. He’s not the biggest, but he always finds a way to make that play that you need. I think that ultimately comes down to sound study. He knows where the opponent will be. And he knows how to set stuff up.
“I think that is how we were similar. We both take pride in understanding the game (and) having a high football IQ.”
As the 2020 Big Ten running back of the year, Ibrahim was already an elite tailback before exclusive access to those chalk-talk sessions a year ago, but the sixth-year player used those meetings to take his understanding to a graduate level. He joined the coaches on Mondays, the players’ off day, after Trey Potts went down with his own season-ending injury last October, knowing he would be called on for more answers from the freshmen who found themselves at the top of the depth chart.
“I was asking questions like, ‘Why is that play going to work? Why is that on the call sheet?’ ” Ibrahim said. “Just understanding the play calling. … The looks they want when they call it. It all goes together, and I think last year that was what I focused on, and then going into this year, it all rolled over.”
This season, Ibrahim will share midweek plays he would like to run, and by Friday, Ciarrocca and staff will produce the call sheet. Ibrahim said his 28-yard touchdown run against Rutgers came on a sought-after look.
“It was the play I was looking for throughout the whole game and it finally happened,” Ibrahim said. “So, all that preparation leading up to that one play and that is probably the only play you see (on highlights from) the whole game. You have to execute when the play actually happens.”
So. What was the look?
“He saw a big hole,” Ciarrocca deadpanned. “… We knocked them back off the ball and they were overplaying the cutback, and he took it out the front door. He did the rest.”
Ciarrocca said Burns — the Gophers' associate head coach who has been a candidate for head coaching vacancies — does a “great job” of not only teaching fundamentals but the big picture. So, when his running backs get the ball, they are decisive.
“You can never assume at the running back position what is going to happen, but you can anticipate,” Ciarrocca said. “(Ibrahim) does a great job of helping set up the blockers, but that is because he understands the scheme and who everybody is supposed to block and how they are supposed to do it.”
Ciarrocca calls them “assists.”
“He assists the offensive line with their blocks, by pressing holes on an outside run, hugging the outside edge of a hole on an inside run or hugging the inside edge,” Ciarrocca said. “All the little things that (casual fans) don’t really notice.”
It helps that Ibrahim also covers up missed blocks or can break through them at the second level. He has 955 rushing yards this season, with 649 after contact, per Pro Football Focus.
Pass-blocking is another overlooked category Ibrahim excels in. “He is one of the best pass-pro guys I’ve ever been around,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “I thought Doug Martin was really good out of Boise (State) when we were in Tampa (Bay). I thought he was really good. Mo is really good.”
When Ibrahim will come to the sideline after offensive drives, Burns will ask him about the run fit on the sideline. Ibrahim’s feedback is exacting.
“When I come in on Sundays and I watch it, the dialogue is almost absolutely correct right now,” Burns said. “That’s outstanding. Because I can give information to coach Ciarrocca, and he could put us in the best play and be able to make adjustments on the sideline.”
Burns also doesn’t need to critique things from the last drive — Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams will do that among themselves. Burns had a similar situation in 2019 with Smith, Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks.
Smith returned to Minnesota for the season opener against New Mexico State. An NFL free agent seeking opportunities in the XFL or the USFL, he took time to catch up with many former teammates and coaches, including Aggies coach Jerry Kill, who recruited him to Minnesota in 2014.
Ibrahim’s mother, Latoya, suggested the trip. She wanted Smith to make sure Ibrahim was doing well and not too nervous for his first game in a calendar year.
“You could tell he is focused,” Smith relayed. “He always wanted it, but I think whenever you get the game taken away from you, and you’ve got to sit down for a while and watch others, you learn a lot about yourself and you, of course, gain some appreciation for what you’re not having at moment.”
With Ibrahim, Burns has emphasized living in the moment, while Fleck has shown a willingness to look to the future, saying Ibrahim would make a great coach. He has said the same thing about quarterback Tanner Morgan and linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin.
For years, Fleck has had “Mo Mondays” on his schedule — one-on-one meetings between the two in his office. Now those get-togethers can fall on different days of the week based on when they “chirp” each other from their Apple watches.
Fleck’s office lights are on and they talk about pretty much anything but football: business/finance, life advice, the future.
“When you are really smart like that and you understand the big picture, I think that is when you can be a really good coach,” Fleck said. “If you know what to do, you can do pretty well in your job. If you know why, you can excel in your job.”
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