Minnesota Gopher Football: Senior class leaves some holes to fill for 2012

With the regular season wrapped up, it's time to say good-bye to the senior class of 2011. 18 players were listed as seniors in 2011, and the group made some solid contributions to the Gopher program. Sure, they're not the winningest senior class, as they finished their careers with back-to-back 3 win seasons, but they went through a lot in their years on campus. And hey- they're the first senior class since 2000 to not just beat Iowa twice in their careers, but to finish with two straight Floyd victories. So we'll be forever thankful to them for that.

While all 18 didn't start, they did make valuable contributions, and they'll leave some holes to fill for 2012.

Let's start on defense, where S Kim Royston leaves perhaps the largest shoes to fill. The Gophers remain woefully thin and inexperienced with Big Ten caliber defensive backs, and Royston's leadership and play-making ability will be greatly missed. He led the team- and the conference- in tackles with 123 (71 solo) with 3.5 tackles for loss, an interception, and the first sack of his career. Can you even imagine how ugly our secondary would have been had Royston not been granted a sixth year of eligibility? He was the defensive MVP this year, and his loss cannot be overstated.

If Troy Stoudermire can't get the same gift of an extra year of eligibility due to a medical hardship waiver that Royston received, his loss will also be huge. Stoudermire suffered a broken arm early in the season and only appeared in a handful of games. He's only in his fourth year of eligibility having never redshirted, but as of now it appears doubtful the NCAA will give him a fifth year. Then again, they were saying the same thing about Royston at this time last year, so you never know. He was by far the team's most talented corner, and to give you an idea of his value, his two interceptions were HALF the team's total for the year. And again, Troy barely played.

It's too bad JUCO transfer Christyn Lewis didn't have one more year of eligibility as he likely would have started at safety in 2012. Or at least provided some experienced competition. Hard to believe Shady Salamon was the starting strong safety against USC when the season began. He lasted just the one game as a starter, and while he appeared in 10 of 12, he recorded only 11 tackles. Still, he also would have provided depth and some experience next year to a group that's sorely lacking as of right now.

Gary Tinsley was a steady presence as the team's starting middle linebacker the past three seasons and quietly had a pretty solid senior year. He finished second on the team with 87 total tackles, and his nine tackles for loss and four sacks both led the team. He'll certainly be missed in 2012 but how much will depend on the condition of Brendan Beal's knee. The former high school All-American and Florida Gators transferred missed the entire 2011 season due to complications with his surgically repaired knee. If the year off allowed Beal's knee to heal well, he could make a real impact in 2012, but otherwise there's not a leading candidate in the group.

The defensive line loses starting tackles Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey. While I'm appreciative of the effort both guys gave, I think it's fair to say neither quite lived up to expectations in Maroon and Gold. Kirksey especially was a two year starter who was expected to make a real impact as a senior, but finished with just 19 total tackles, one tackle for loss, and zero sacks. Jacobs, who played both end and tackle in his career, was better with 26 total and six TFL, but registered just one sack. Kirksey and Jacobs were leaders and contributors, but as the only two seniors, the group they leave behind has some definite potential to improve upon this season in 2012.

OFFENSE

Let's start on the line, where Chris Bunders and his 40 career starts will graduate this year. Bunders wasn't bad as s guard, but it's too bad it took a slew of injuries to realize he might have been better off as a tackle all along, as he played pretty well at RT the latter part of the season. Bunders' absence next year could leave some question marks as to his replacement, as Jimmy Gjere missed most of the season with a concussion. If he's not ready or able for next season, we're looking at some VERY young options to replace him.

Ryan Orton and Ryan Wynn were valuable players on the line throughout their career, as both began this season as starters but ended it as reserves. Wynn started every game his redshirt freshman season but injuries caused him to miss all of 2009 and he appeared in just 3 games in 2010, and again injuries hampered his 2011 season. Orton made starts at both guard and tackle in his career, and his leadership will be missed. Because of all the injuries to the line this season, the O-line will have plenty of experienced-albeit young- candidates for starting spots in 2012.

At wideout, Da'Jon McKnight will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. McKnight led the Gophs in every major receiving category for the second straight year, and while his TD's dropped from 10 to 4, he was by far the best receiver on the team this year as his 51 catches for 760 yards and 4 scores were three times better than the next best receiver on the roster. Unlike when Eric Decker left two years ago and McKnight stepped in to the #1 receiver role, there doesn't seem to be anyone capable of Da'Jon's shoes next year. Malcolm Moulton could be a solid possession receiver (if he'd stop dropping so many passes), and Marcus Jones is explosive but at 5'8 just doesn't have the size to be a #1. Brandon Green made just 15 catches this year, and he'll be expected to take a leadership role with this group. JUCO transfer Ge'Shun Harris has the size and look of a #1, but was almost non-existent as he caught just one pass all year. The guy with the most potential is freshman Devin Crawford-Tufts, who showed some real glimpses of something special. He- or someone- will need to be in 2012 to try and replace McKnight's production.

The team's second leading receiver this year was actually a tight end, but Collin McGarry is graduating too, as the team's other top tight end Eric Lair. While both were solid this year and played the bulk of the time, Coach Kill hasn't made the tight end much of a focal point in the passing game in the past, so finding some tight ends who can block might be more important than how well they catch. Plus, while McGarry and Lair were two of the top five pass catchers on the team, they only accounted for 27 catches between them. Both were good, but because of how the TE is usually used in Kill's offense, their loss may not be of quite the same impact as it could of been in a more pass-heavy offense.

Last, but certainly not least, we have the running backs and senior Duane Bennett. For the first time in his career Duane stayed healthy and started for the entire season, and he carried the load for the team (well, ok he carried the load for the running backs. Q carried the team, but you know what I mean). He finished with a career high 659 yards rushing, and also added 3 TD's. While his 3.8 YPC doesn't look great, he had some big games and big runs, and what's more, there's not a viable replacement on the roster at the moment. Remember last summer when we were excited because the coaching staff was excited that they had FIVE running backs who could potentially carry the mail? It sure didn't turn out that way, as Duane's 166 carries were 103 more than Donnell Kirkwood's 63, and the only other running back with double-digit carries was true freshman David Cobb with 10. Lamonte Edwards finished the season at linebacker and Devon Wright just couldn't get on the field. Maybe Kirkwood just needs one more offseason to fully heal from the leg injury that took most of his 2010 season, and he'll be the bellcow in 2012, but it's entirely possible Minnesota's starting running back isn't even on the roster right now.

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