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Gophers running back Kobe McCrary had to change his world

Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Kobe McCrary (22) celebrates after a touchdown run during the fourth quarter against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium last weekend. Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS—Kobe McCrary doesn't listen to Earth Wind & Fire, but he giggled when the name of the soul group was offered as a possible nickname for him and fellow Gophers running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith.

Smith's mom, Essie, proposed it as the Gophers incorporated the trio before the 17-10 loss to Iowa last week and likely will continue to play all three against Michigan on Saturday night in Ann Arbor.

"I like a lot of old-school jams, like Al Green and stuff," McCrary said Wednesday. "So, I might go home tonight and kick on some Earth Wind & Fire, do some homework."

Studying had fallen by the wayside for McCrary last season. "I didn't play as much last fall, so that kind of messed with my mind-set," he explained.

Last December, McCrary was one of 10 players suspended for the Holiday Bowl for their alleged involvement in a sexual misconduct case, which stemmed to an off-campus incident in September. Not included in the original allegations, he was reinstated in March. But if the season was held in the spring, McCrary, a business and marketing education major, would have been academically ineligible.

"Through the spring semester, out of all the stuff that was going on, (he) got a 3.0 GPA. Now, Kobe's got a 3.1 GPA," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck beamed. "You see Kobe running for 150-some yards. I mean, coincidence? I'm not into coincidences. Better people, better players. You understand the process of becoming a better person, you're going to be able to play a lot better. You get held accountable for that and know the importance of that."

With Brooks out with an injury and Smith still carrying a heavy load against Illinois two weeks ago, McCrary led the way with 24 rushes for 153 yards and a touchdown. He scored Minnesota's only touchdown in the narrow loss to the Hawkeyes last week.

McCrary, a transfer from Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan., rushed 39 times for 246 yards and three touchdowns in 2016. With four games remaining this year, he has 58 carries for 290 yards and five touchdowns.

He's a 6-foot-1, 240-pound change of pace compared to leading rushers Smith (5-11, 210) and Brooks (6-0, 213). Last season, Smith and Brooks were labeled "Smash and Bash" by an ESPN commentator, but Brooks, aka "Bash," didn't care for it. Smith called it "weird."

But McCrary likes this moniker, and he feels he would be "Earth" because it reflects him. "Bigger, solid," he said, adding he probably would settle on Smith as "Wind" and Brooks "Fire."

When Fleck was hired in January, he didn't know his players first names. As he learned some details like McCrary's GPA and looming suspension, it didn't help his hunch that McCrary might not be around the program for long.

"Whether it's GPA, whether it's in trouble, whether it's (legal) cases or whether it's whatever, you're looking at just data," Fleck said. "You haven't got to the real core of the person. But I know, as I continued to meet with Kobe, Kobe wanted something significant for his life. And for that to happen, Kobe was going to have to change, and Kobe's changed."

Out of Chipley, Fla., McCrary said he enrolled at Butler because of poor grades, turning it around with a 3.3 GPA there before slipping again at Minnesota.

"Came here, rough first semester, and right now I'm looking good," said McCrary, who now is trying to teach his cousin Kadeem Webb, a junior college basketball player in Nebraska his lessons.

On the field, Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said McCrary had a ways to go when he returned in the middle of spring practices. With the help of running backs coach Kenni Burns, McCrary now understands how he needs to run in a way that gives his offensive linemen time to block for him.

"The credit goes to him," Ciarrocca said. "Understanding that he had a weakness and that he was pretty good but he could be better."

Fleck was itching this week to share McCrary's story, in part, because of how he's changing his world.

"There's so many factors outside for a student-athlete that we can't necessarily control for them, but we can give them the tools to make sure they change in the right way," Fleck said. "And I think Kobe is a prime example of that. I'm very proud of the young man, and I love him."

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