Phil Steele is widely known amongst college football fans for his preseason analysis. This week Steele released his all-conference teams and his Big Ten teams do not paint an pretty picture for state of the Gopher football program. Steele doesn't do the usual 1st and 2nd team, he actually does deeper with FOUR levels of All-Big Ten caliber players. All together he names 100 individual players (I'm excluding special teams) out of the 264 Big Ten starters (22 starters x 12 teams). That equates to 38% of the Big Ten being named to one of Steele's top four teams.
Your Minnesota Gophers managed one player to make that cut. One player in the top 38% of the Big Ten! Troy Stoudermire, who basically didn't play last year, was honored as a 4th team corner back. Even Indiana, who might be worse than we are, had four players make the cut as the team with the next fewest players.
So with this information and this man's prediction it got me thinking about a couple points. The first is that this roster is still lacking in talent. We may feel as though this year is going to be better and we could take a couple steps forward, but we still have LONG way to go. Secondly I wonder who is on the short list of players who by the end of the season might earn a spot on the top four Big Ten lines.
The lack of overall talent and depth of talent is concerning but it should also be noted that we had a lot of youth playing last year and we have a handful of JUCO players who will be starting this year. The offensive line was kind of a mess and in flux much of last year. The receivers are young and the defensive line was terribly young (particularly at end). All of that to say that there isn't a whole lot of proven success to go on when looking ahead to next season. But I do believe we have a number of kids who can make a nice jump this season to earn a little more respect amongst their Big Ten piers.
QB - MarQueis Gray - our primary offensive weapon and freak of nature certainly could catapult himself into the conversation of the top four quarterbacks in the conference. Steele lists Denard Robinson, Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez and Nathan Scheelhaase as his top four. Outside of Robinson I believe Gray could outperform any of those other guys. Staying healthy and improving his completion % while leading a more potent offense could make his name more widely known in Big Ten circles. Likelihood of jumping into the top four? Better than most on the roster but it is such a high profile position and he's playing for a team that will likely finish with just a couple Big Ten wins so it may be tough.
OL - Ed Olson and Tommy Olson could make make headway in 2012 and establish themselves as two of better linemen in the conference. Ed had a promising freshman season that didn't translate into a standout sophomore campaign. He absolutely is talented but needs to take some steps forward in production and leadership along the line as a junior. Tommy has some nastiness to him and started a few games as a true freshman. Also very talented with great size, in his sophomore year he could start to make a name for himself. The Olson brothers could anchor the left side of the line for the Gopher offense and establish themselves among the Big Ten's best. Likelihood? I think there is a good chance that one of them earns some post-season honors, I'd put money on Tommie over Ed but not by much. Jimmy Gjere if healthy could also make a name for himself as could Josh Campion. This entire group has some upside, I really am expecting an additional year under this coaching staff will make this unit much better.
DT - Ra'Shede Hageman will be given the opportunity this year to play a lot and showcase some talent. He was cursed early in his career by the Brewster hype machine but that is a couple years in the rear-view mirror. The fact still remains that Hageman is very athletic and talented. He was playing much better near the end of the season and is poised for a big junior year. I do not expect Hageman will be in the conversation for first or second team but if we are listing out four all-conference teams at the end of the year I think he could very well fit. Likelihood? Not all that strong but there is a chance.
OLB - Keanon Cooper might be my top choice if I had to pick one guy to have a break-out season. As a junior he put up nice numbers and I'm expecting great numbers in 2013. Will it be enough to crack the list of Steele's top 16 linebackers? I think he very well could. I expect nearly all of his stats to increase, particularly sacks and possibly interceptions. I love his athleticism and size and I think he'll greatly benefit from not changing coordinators (again). A second year in a system will see him in the right place at the right times and he will make big plays. Likelihood? I'm high on him, but that really doesn't mean much of anything.
S - Brock Vereen had a pretty good second half to his sophomore season. He has since been moved to safety, which was a position of dramatic need, and I he could have a very nice year. He is a huge question mark and adding him to this list might be a stretch, but he is talented and if other pieces of the defense fall into place then he could be in position to make a number of plays from safety. His success will be dependent on getting some pass rush and on the corners being able to provide some decent coverage but if he is allowed to help over the top, he can really shine in that role. Likelihood is admittedly slim.
The rest? Outside of Gray, this list is incredibly subjective. My list of five or six guys could be 100% different from yours. I think the pool of Big Ten running backs is just too deep for any of our backs to crack this list. I like our young receivers but they are young and very unproven. Our defensive ends got better throughout 2011 but I don't see any of them as game-changing type players. I like some of our JUCO guys but I have nothing to base a prediction on one of them being one of the best at their position in the Big Ten. I could buy an argument for DCT, anyone on the OL (particularly Gjere) and Mike Rallis who probably belongs on the list but I left him off.
You tell me who I missed or who you think could make the jump this year.