Fully recovered from injury, Minnesota RB Mohamed Ibrahim is on the verge of being a record breaker

Just over a year ago, Mohamed Ibrahim couldn't walk. Now, the Minnesota running back is at his very best with records in his sight.

Just over a year ago, Mohamed Ibrahim couldn’t walk. The Minnesota running back didn’t know what the future would hold. He’s battled mental and physical obstacles in the past 12 months, but he’s fully healthy and back in sensational form. This week, he’ll line up in the Golden Gophers backfield with the program rushing touchdown record well within his sight.

Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim has records in his sight

“It’s definitely coming down.” Former Minnesota running back legend Darrell Thompson has held the program record for rushing touchdowns for 33 years. He’s watched pretenders and contenders come, and come up short. Yet, on a recent Minnesotan radio show, he was confident that it’s only a matter of time until there’s a new name atop the Gophers’ record book. Like so many, he recognizes that Ibrahim is back to his brilliant best.

When he’s at the top of his game, there are few better running backs than Ibrahim. At his best, he’s practically unstoppable. We saw in 2018 and 2020, that he’s capable of producing and plundering at a level that other running backs can only dream of. He was named Big Ten Running Back of the Year in 2020 after tallying 15 touchdowns and 1,076 yards. And that was actually his second-most productive season with respect to yardage, as he racked up 1,160 yards as a freshman in 2018.

Two games into the 2022 college football season, Ibrahim is at his very best. On his first carry of the year against New Mexico State, he emerged around the left tackle and broke the will and advances of two defensive opponents, finally being halted for a 16-yard gain. Twice he lowered his shoulder and powered into the end zone, adding the 34th and 35th touchdowns of his career.

36 and 37 came the following week against Western Illinois. The Minnesota running back broke tackles, ripped off chunk plays, and bullied his way into the end zone. Rinse and repeat. Classic Ibrahim. While tougher tests await in what will be his final college campaign, he’s on pace to break his single-season yardage total. Currently averaging a career-high six yards per carry, he could break 1,500 yards without breaking a sweat.

Back to his best after a year of adversity

Rewind a year to September 3, 2021.

As he carved up the Ohio State Buckeyes defense under the bright lights of Huntington Bank Stadium and the glare of national television, few would have argued that the fifth-year Minnesota star was one of the top running backs in the country. Run after run, he gashed and ground away at a listless Buckeyes defense. Fast, physical, frenetic. Picking up fourth downs for fun. Finding the end zone. You name it, he could do it. Ibrahim at his very best.

If you search for the Minnesota running back on social media, the video section is awash with highlight runs from that night. Not the same run, over and over again, different runs. The video section is dominated by them in much the same way that the Ohio State defense was dominated by Ibrahim at his very best. Then, early in the fourth quarter came the play that would bring into question whether Ibrahim would ever be back to that best.

#24 went to plant and cut like he had so many times in that game against the Buckeyes and so many times in his Gophers career. Mere mortals would get injured just thinking about a move like that, but it was commonplace for the Minnesota running back. Except this time, something was different. Ibrahim fell to the turf. Helped up by a teammate, he attempted to run it off before falling back down to the earth just shy of the sideline.

“At first, I thought it was a cramp,” Ibrahim recalled during an emotional video back in November 2021. “But then when I got up, I knew it was something serious.”

Confirmation would come later, but the television images were clear. Ibrahim had ruptured his Achilles tendon. “It felt like I was living a nightmare,” he continued in the social media video announcement of his return for this 2022 campaign. “The season I’ve been dreaming of all offseason was just gone in the blink of an eye. I was crushed.”

Ibrahim has battled both physical and mental recovery

The physical recovery from an Achilles injury is brutal. There are athletes that never regain their explosion or flexibility, and at the running back position, that can be the bread and butter of how you get the job done. Before Ibrahim could focus on whether he’d be back on the field and back to his very best, the long-term goal had to be replaced by, what would seem from the outside, less significant stages of recovery.

“When I first got hurt, I was on a scooter,” Ibrahim told assembled reporters ahead of the season. “Not being able to walk, that’s the tough thing. Just understanding that it was little things. You look past it like it was nothing. So just being able to walk, learn how to walk again. Being able to run, learning how to run again, stuff like that, that I took for granted.”

There’s a phrase in life that goes “look after the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves.” Ibrahim took small steps in his physical recovery to ensure that he was able to return to his very best on the football field this season. The outward signs of his physical recovery are plain to see. He’s still fast. He’s still physical. Is he still able to cut and burst with devastating effect? You better believe that he is.

But recovery is more than just physical. The psychological element of overcoming adversity is something that can be so much harder. Compounding those difficulties is a societal attitude to mental toughness that is even more difficult to navigate in the world of sports, let alone a sport where competitive and physical toughness is valued above all. Finding a middle ground where you can bulldoze a linebacker but still be able to discuss emotional vulnerability was — and remains — key to Ibrahim’s return to the height of his game.

“We talk about everything I’m going through,” the Minnesota running back said as he spoke about his weekly visits to a sports psychologist in the aftermath of the New Mexico State win. “It got me through it. Just expressing my emotions and understanding it’s okay to feel this way.”

An emotional support network has been just as important as any medical intervention. Before the season, Ibrahim talked about the role that his mother Latoya played in motivating him to go about his recovery “with a high spirit [and] high energy.” He turned to previous examples of successful recovery, with Kobe Bryant’s return from the same injury providing further determination “because I always looked up to Kobe, and I love his mindset,” Ibrahim said.

A record-breaking return looms for Ibrahim as he returns to his very best

The result of this physical and psychological recovery is an Ibrahim who is back to his very best. He looks razor sharp and laser-focused out on the football field. There’s been no drop-off in his cut ability, no explosiveness missing from his burst. He already holds a number of Minnesota running back records, but this season could see him etch his name in Golden Gophers folklore.

Thompson’s touchdown record could even fall to Ibrahim this Saturday as the Gophers welcome a Colorado team that has the worst rushing defense in the nation to Huntingdon Bank Stadium. The Buffaloes have allowed over 355 yards per game, over seven yards per carry, and a total of nine rushing touchdowns in just two games. Ibrahim needs just three scores to tie the record and four to break it.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the sixth-year senior has found the end zone four times in a game. In consecutive games, as October turned to November in 2020, he pummelled both Illinois and Maryland for four scores while tallying 431 yards on the ground across the two contests. It could come in one game, but it could also come across multiple games as the season develops.

As such, breaking the record mirrors the advice he would give for overcoming adversity.

“You’re going to have hard days,” was Ibrahim’s response when asked before this season what advice he’d give to anyone facing adversity. “You’re gonna have tough days where you think that you’re looking at the top of Mount Everest and you’re thinking, Hey, I gotta get there. I gotta get there. But you’ve got to break it down into little sections…There are like little steps, steps, steps.”

“And then you look down and realize you’re at the top of Mount Everest.”

That is where Ibrahim is right now, at his very best as one of the top running backs in college football.

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