Freshman runner has been a big hit for Gophers

Updated: October 28, 2003, 7:34 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- It took one gigantic collision and five stitches to make Minnesota coach Glen Mason realize he had something special in Laurence Maroney.

"If I could pinpoint it to one thing, he ran the ball and met Eli Ward and it was a big-time collision. Bang!" Mason said, recalling a preseason scrimmage where Maroney ran into Ward, the Gophers' starting free safety.

"And Maroney just jumped up and ran right back to the huddle," Mason said. "And Ward had to go to the hospital for stitches on his nose. That was probably the hardest Maroney has ever been hit on a football field, but he didn't even seem fazed by it."

Maroney, a true freshman from St. Louis, hasn't been fazed by much during his first season of college football. He's rushed for 622 yards and eight touchdowns and had a career game last week with 22 carries for 179 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Illinois.

He figures to again see plenty of action this Saturday when Minnesota (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) hosts Indiana (1-7, 0-4).

"I knew that if I had a chance coming in to even try and get into the rotation, that preseason would be the place for me," Maroney said.

Coming into this season, Mason already had three talented and proven backs in Marion Barber III, Terry Jackson II and Thomas Tapeh. So in an effort to keep the trio fresh, Mason leaned on Maroney and other reserves to help get the team through two-a-day practices this summer.

"I was real tired, but I knew I'd have to do something like that," Maroney said. "If that's what I had to do to get into the rotation, I was willing to do it."

Maroney is now a regular in a rotation that starts with Barber -- who leads the team with 888 yards rushing and 15 TDs -- and usually sees a healthy dose of Tapeh as well.

Jackson, who led the team with 1,317 yards rushing last year, has been hardest hit by Maroney's emergence, getting very limited work this season and not even getting a carry in the past three games.

"He's been able to focus on the team. That's how Terry is," Barber said. "He's a team player. There's no selfishness."

Maroney said he's been surprised by how much the Gophers have used him during his freshman season and that he won't get selfish when it comes to playing time.

"I trust that the coaches know what they're doing and when they want to use me," he said. "So when I get the ball I just try and do the best I can."

Maroney's best moment of the season might have come when nobody else but his teammates and coaches were watching.

"Laurence broke out of the backfield pretty good and gave a couple of shake moves and shook a couple of the linebackers, so I came up," Ward said, recalling their preseason collision. "He gave me a move like he was going to fake me, then he just lowered his shoulder at the last minute. It was a pretty good collision.

"We both landed sideways, I made the tackle, but my nose was split and bleeding pretty good so I had to get five stitches. After he delivered a blow like that, I gave him some props. To see a true freshman running back ready to come in and play like he can ... the last person I saw like that was Marion Barber, and I thought he was a special case."

Gophers quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq is among those who became a believer in Maroney after his big hit on Ward.

"After the scrimmage I told him, 'You could have scored a touchdown if you would have made a move," Abdul-Khaliq said. "But he said, 'No, I wanted to test Eli. He's the biggest hitter on the team and I wanted to test him.' And from that point on, I said, 'This guy, he's something special."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index