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Saturday won’t be the first time Gophers rookie Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving will play a crucial role as a youngster playing alongside veteran teammates.

Irving had great luck in his sophomore year on a senior-dominated team at Hillcrest High School in suburban Chicago. The running back announced his presence by rushing for 303 yards and three touchdowns in a win over rival Lemont.

“At that point,” said Morgan Weaver, the Hawks coach at the time, “I knew he was going to be a special talent and he was going to do great things.”

Fast forward three years, and now it looks like it’s PJ Fleck’s turn to see what Irving can do in a star role.

When the Gophers face Nebraska on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium, they will do so with their two best running backs, Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts, lost this season to injury. The “one-and-a-half reserve” approach popularized by former Gophers coach Glen Mason and adopted by Fleck will be put to the test, and Irving, a true freshman, would appear to be the next man.

Although Fleck and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. have pointed out that the Gophers will use a committee approach that also includes freshman Ky Thomas redshirt, sophomore Cam Wiley redshirt and junior Bryce Williams redshirt, Irving rose to the complementary role behind Potts after quitting. ‘Ibrahim has been lost for the season.

“He’s a very, very talented player,” Fleck said of the 5-10, 190-pound Irving. He hasn’t really played much yet, and he’s still learning. I believe in it 100%, and you’re going to see a heavy dose of it. ”

Among the Gophers’ healthy running backs, Irving leads the team with 112 yards on 25 carries, including 89 yards in the 30-0 victory over Colorado. He also had a 41-yard kickoff return in the win over Miami (Ohio).

A problem solver

It doesn’t surprise Weaver, who used the talented Chicago athlete as a running back, wide receiver, wild quarterback and cornerback at Hillcrest, who plays football in the fifth, that Irving has contributed in various ways to the Gophers. of the eight Illinois classes.

“Just putting the ball in his hands solved a lot of the problems,” said Weaver.

Don Houston would agree. Houston is Hillcrest’s basketball coach, and he leaned heavily on Irving, a three-year point guard on a team that included two Division I basketball prospects. Irving led the Hawks to the scorers ranking as a junior, and Houston was counting on him to do the dirty work as well.

“He brought a football mentality to the basketball court,” said Houston. “We would put him on the best player on the other team, and he would play with this guy like he was playing football. It would be a tough night for anyone’s best player.”

As good as Irving was a basketball player, “He knew where his bread and butter would be,” Houston said, and football scouts came calling Hillcrest, located in Country Club Hills, about 25 miles south. from downtown Chicago.

The four-star rookie was the nation’s ninth-ranked running back in the 2021 recruiting class by and the No. 3 overall prospect in Illinois by 247Sports. Seven other Big Ten schools, including Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan, offered him scholarships.

The Gophers offered Irving a scholarship in May 2019, the same day his grandmother died. “It meant a lot to him,” Weaver said. “He felt the love. He felt wanted in Minnesota.”

Learn on the fly

As a freshman with the Gophers, Irving had his growing pains, as evidenced by his 10 combined carries for 23 yards in the last two games. Sanford sees the youngster working there.

“He was successful at first and then it was his opportunity to get more and more into the game plan,” Sanford said. “He was overwhelmed. I think he was overwhelmed just being a freshman, a first time college student. ”

The Gophers typically don’t make freshmen available for interviews, so Irving wasn’t available for comment.

The week off came at a good time for Irving and a team trying to fill a hole in the backfield while trying to re-launch a pass attack.

“He trains at a very high level,” said Sanford.

Wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, from Kankakee, Ill., Quickly bonded with compatriot Illinois.

“He’s my guy. I’ve known Bucky for a while,” Autman-Bell said. “I followed him when he was back in high school. He brings a lot of energy to the team.… He’s a kid who came from nothing and loves to play football.”

Irving’s personality rubbed off on his teammates, but they started calling him “Bucko” instead of his childhood nickname “Bucky,” unwilling to associate anyone with the Wisconsin mascot.

Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan considers Irving a balanced player who has been the subject of quick study since joining the team this summer.

“Obviously he doesn’t have a ton of experience, but that doesn’t really matter,” Morgan said. “… He is [performed well] at training camp he did it during the season his number was called, and we continue to expect him to do the same. ”

It could be in a committee setting, as Fleck and Sanford suggest, or it could be with Irving grabbing a bigger chunk of the offense.

“He’s the guy for us,” said Autman-Bell. It’s going to be amazing for us this week.

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