The Illini lose their top five options along the defensive line from last season, and they have a very young group coming in to replace them. Teams will be looking to challenge the group’s inexperience each week with the run game, and Minnesota will make the run game a key part of its offense against Illinois with junior running back Rodney Smith.
Smith shared carries with Shannon Brooks and others for Minnesota in 2016, but he was still able to rush for nearly 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns. Last season, he rushed for 100 yards and 2 TDs against the Illini, and Smith could be poised for another big day against the men in Orange and Blue.
Rodney Smith is a complete back. He caught 23 passes and returned kickoffs for the Gophers, including a kickoff return TD against Rutgers. Smith is a player without any glaring holes in his game. At 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, he is a handful to bring down, and he also has the speed and quickness to get to the edge.
A complete running back like Smith is a challenge for any defense to deal with, but it can be extremely challenging for a defense with a young defensive line. Illinois will need to bring their “A” game against Rodney Smith if they have any hope of upsetting the Gophers.