MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers senior Trevor Mbakwe knows he’s not Adrian Peterson, even though he and the Vikings running back are similar in that they’re both coming back from torn ACLs.
As Mbakwe watched Peterson run over the Detroit Lions for 171 yards and a touchdown Sunday on his surgically repaired knee, the University of Minnesota forward couldn’t help but be inspired.
“He definitely motivates me,” Mbakwe said of Peterson. “It definitely gives me confidence knowing the way he’s come back so easily. I’m starting to gain a lot of that confidence back, too.”
Mbakwe’s confidence may be growing, but he’s still being eased back into things with the Gophers. He played just 14 minutes off the bench in Monday’s 82-56 win over Toledo at Williams Arena and scored just six points. But the Gophers don’t need Mbakwe — their leading scorer from two years ago — to put up big numbers on offense just yet.
Thanks to a balanced offensive attack, Minnesota built a big first-half lead before Mbakwe entered the game with 9:44 to play before halftime. Three different Gophers scored in double figures Monday, led by 15 points from sophomore Joe Coleman, 13 from Austin Hollins and 12 from senior Rodney Williams.
Instead of contributing big numbers on offense, Mbakwe did plenty of the little things to help Minnesota cruise to its second blowout win of the young season. He drew a charge during his second possession of the game. He deflected passes out of bounds, chased a loose ball all the way to the corner of the raised Williams Arena court — careful not to fall off, of course — and also blocked two Rockets shots.
And Mbakwe, who led the Big Ten in rebounding as a junior, also grabbed seven rebounds in 14 minutes. Only Williams had more rebounds than Mbakwe, although his eight boards came in 24 minutes.
“He’s very tough. He’s working on the things that he needs to continue to get better at,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said of Mbakwe. “… He’s ready, but just making sure that he doesn’t exert or extend himself too far right now. So he’s playing within his game. I like to see him getting to the free throw line. I think he had five rebounds in five minutes and one point tonight.”
Through two games this year, Mbakwe has just 10 total points as he’s come off the bench in both contests. Before his injury, 10 points was typical for Mbakwe in one half. But he’s not worried about the scoring. He knows that part of his game will come around when he needs it.
“I’m still finding my way,” Mbakwe said. “I’ve got to find a way to be more aggressive. … I’m kind of focusing on the defensive end, getting myself back and rebounding the ball. I think the offense is going to come the more I get comfortable with the guys out there and them getting used to me. I’m not really worried about the offensive end. I’m just doing as much to play with the energy and rebound the ball and block shots.”
Even when he’s not scoring, Mbakwe has been the heart and soul of the Gophers. That was the case last year after his injury, as he was often seen cheering his teammates on from the bench. Now, as a sixth-year senior, Mbakwe has even more wisdom to impart on his teammates.
“Trev’s the guy who’s been around a lot and seen basically everything,” Williams said. “When stuff’s going bad, Trev always seems to know the right thing to say.”
Mbakwe still wears a brace on his right knee, but said it won’t be a necessity all season. He insists that the knee is fine. He’s had no swelling or any other side effects so far through a pair of exhibition games and now two regular-season games.
Regardless of how much he scores early on, the important thing is that Mbakwe is back on the court early in the season. He’ll continue to tune into Vikings games to see the sort of impact Peterson has in the NFL as he possibly runs his way to a Comeback Player of the Year or MVP award.
Mbakwe’s comeback may not have been as fast as Peterson’s — but then again, Peterson does just about everything faster than anyone else.
“It’s really remarkable. He got hurt after me and he was back playing two months before I was playing,” Mbakwe said of Peterson. “He’s one of a kind. I know a lot of times, I watch the game and come and talk to our trainer and they’re like, ‘I can’t compare your guys’ knees.’ He’s definitely been a motivation for me.”