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With Otis Weah on the way out, who's next in the UND backfield?

Weah, the team's go-to running back the past two seasons, entered the NCAA transfer portal earlier this week.

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UND running back Isaiah Smith weaves around cones during morning football practice at Memorial Stadium on Monday, August 9, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Earlier this week, UND running back Otis Weah, an All-American last spring and the face of the offense the past two seasons, announced his move to the NCAA transfer portal.

With the team's primary back on his way out, where does that leave the Fighting Hawks' options at running back?

With Weah missing two games this season, the Fighting Hawks were able to get a bigger glimpse of the remaining options. So far, all of those options appear to be returning in 2022.

Here's a quick rundown of those next in line for a bump in carries:

Isaiah Smith: The 6-foot, 200-pound Smith was a redshirt freshman in the fall. Smith had a rocky start to his career, as he missed most of his senior season in high school with an injury then spent a portion of his true freshman college year in coronavirus protocol.

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Once moving past those issues, Smith showed a slimmer physique and the results were solid. When Weah missed the Drake game due to suspension, Smith carried 12 times for 125 yards and a touchdown.

Still, questions remained if Smith could perform like that against a Missouri Valley foe. Those questions were answered later in the year against Southern Illinois.

This time, Weah missed the game in Carbondale with an illness, and Smith responded with 17 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown.

Smith, who has shown to have some of the best receiving hands in the backfield, ended the year running for 6.8 yards per carry, which was better than Weah's clip of 5.1 yards.

Smith is likely the leading candidate to take over for Weah, although there are questions about durability as Smith played in eight of the team's 11 games due to lower-body injuries.

Luke Skokna: The 5-9, 175-pound junior was used more as a receiving back than anything in a 2021 season in which he battled injuries much of the second half of the season.

Skokna ran for 123 yards on eight carries against Drake when Weah was suspended, which showed his value in open space as the Bulldogs didn't have speed answers on the edge against UND.

Skokna had two games this season of more than 50 receiving yards.

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Skokna will undoubtedly have a role in 2022 but taking on a majority of the carries isn't likely. His value will be in his versatility in the passing game.

Gavin Ziebarth: The 6-foot, 205-pound true freshman maintained his redshirt but saw some action and had a breakout performance against Western Illinois.

In his first college action, Ziebarth ran 15 times for 110 yards against WIU. Later in the season, Ziebarth caught a difficult, short touchdown pass from Quincy Vaughn.

A powerful runner with a high school track background, the Cambridge, Minn., native is an intriguing mix of power and speed.

Smith is likely to receive the first crack at a starting role in 2022 but if Ziebarth emerges as the leader of the pack it shouldn't be a big surprise.

Creighton Mitchell: Some may forget UND lost a potential weapon in the fall of 2021 on the lone scrimmage of fall camp.

After a long run, Mitchell was tackled right at the end zone and an ambulance came to Memorial Stadium to treat the knee injury.

Depending on the status of that injury, Mitchell could very well be in the mix in 2022. As a true freshman last spring, Mitchell played in two games. He had six carries for 23 yards in UND's win over Southern Illinois, then scored a touchdown in the FCS playoff win against Missouri State, where he ended with five carries for 37 yards against the Bears.

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Mitchell turned down walk-on offers from his big in-state Iowa schools to pick UND in recruiting. As a prep, he ran for more than 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns with a 9.5 yards per carry average. He was also a three-time state track winner and helped set a state record in the 4x100 relay.

Before going down with the injury, UND was using Mitchell heavily in the offensive gameplan at fall camp. At just 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds, Mitchell might not be an option between the tackles like Weah but he could still be a threat to watch.

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