After what was universally considered a successful season in year four of the Jerry Kill era, and with spring practice starting next week, it is about time to start looking ahead to 2015. The Gophers had a pretty basic roadmap for success in 2014 and it worked rather well. Play very good defense, win field position with special teams and run the ball on offense utilizing an effective play-action at key times; but mostly run the ball and do that well. There are a few critical questions facing the offense heading into 2015. The list below are my initial questions facing each position group.
Overall the Gopher offense ranked somewhere in the middle of the Big Ten, actual rank varied depending on your metric (scoring offense, total yards, advanced stats, etc). The rushing offense was pretty good behind David Cobb's 1,626 yards while the passing offense finished 13th in yards per game. Next year should be an interesting season with only a few departures who happen to be very key departures. But guys will step in and a spark may be needed to jolt this offense and allow us to be balanced and keep defenses on their heels.
For the most part I am going to avoid talking about incoming freshmen, typically offensive freshmen have been redshirting so it seems unlikely most of them will contribute in 2015 anyway. They key group of newcomers will really be those who redshirted in 2014.
Returning Starter: Mitch Leidner
Other Returners: Chris Streveler
New to the Scene: Jacques Perra (rFR), Demry Croft (tFR)
Primary Question for 2015: Will Leidner improve his passing?
I think it is pretty safe to say that there is no quarterback controversy and for better or worse we know exactly who will be under center when TCU comes to town.
Leidner was just a sophomore and one could easily take his performance in the Citrus Bowl as an encouraging sign that he is improving and we will see a more complete quarterback next year. What we need is a guy who can complete passes at a higher rate than we saw in 2014. In the Michigan, Northwestern and Iowa games he was pretty good; not coincidentally those were all nice wins. Against the likes of TCU, Ohio State, Wisconsin and even Middle Tennessee State he was pretty bad. We need a more consistent and more accurate passer out of Leidner.
I do believe that he otherwise is very solid. He makes good decisions on both the zone read plays as well as his decisions in the passing game. Rarely do I recall throws into obviously covered receivers or trying to force something that was just not there. It happened, as it does for all quarterbacks, but overall I like Leidner's decision making. I also appreciate his leadership and command of the offense. Even as a sophomore there seems to be no doubt who was leading this offense.
Can improve as a passer and be an adequate Big Ten quarterback in this specific offense. He doesn't need to win games with his arm. He wins games with his decision making and ability to complete passes when needed most. I am comfortable with Leidner heading into his junior year. Not overly excited, but comfortable.
Returning Starter: none
Leaving: David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood
Other Returners: Rodrick Williams Jr, Berkley Edwards
New to the Scene: Jeff Jones (FR), Rodney Smith (rFR), Shannon Brooks (tFR), Jonathan Femi-Cole (tFR), James Johannessen (tFR)
Primary Question for 2015: Will Jeff Jones step into the role of lead back? And will he be a stud?
This is going to be a fascinating position to watch next year and highlights maybe the one player Gopher fans are most excited to see on the field. Gone is David Cobb who had an impressive two-year run as the Gopher's primary tailback. His senior season was a single-season best for Gopher football and the production that he provided will be tough to replace.
So who will the offense look to to replace Cobb's 1,600 yards, 13 TDs and 300+ carries? The assumption is that the job is there for freshman Jeff Jones, the singles highest rated offensive recruit to sign with Minnesota in recent memory. Jones turned down offers from helmet schools to build something here at Minnesota is going to be given the chance to show off his skills and be the primary back. While missing last season to get himself fully eligible, will he be ready and will he earn the right to get the majority of carries?
So will he take the reigns and be the leading man as a freshman? Will someone else emerge as the main guy? Or will it be a running back by committee approach with Edwards, Nugget or one of the many freshmen we have on the roster. In our offense this is a rather important position and having someone we can rely upon is a key.
Returning Starter: KJ Maye
Leaving: Isaac Fruechte, Donovahn Jones (dismissed), Logan Hutton
Other Returners: Drew Wolitarsky, Eric Carter
Incoming: Isaiah Gentry (rFR), Melvin Holland Jr (rFR), Desmond Gant (rFR), Rashad Still (tFR), Hunter Register (tFR)
Primary Question for 2015: Will anybody step up to be a dangerous receiving weapon?
Having a wide receiver who can get open, make the tough catch and make big plays for the offense has been lacking for several years. While having another Eric Decker type of a play-maker on the outside would be nice, I'm not sure that is necessary for an improved and successful 2015 passing attack. More consistency from both the passer and those trying to be available targets will go a long ways to balancing the offense.
The cast of receivers you saw in 2014 do not seem likely to produce anything resembling a go-to receiver. KJ Maye was able to make a few plays throughout the year. And Wolitarsky is a big target with reliable hands when healthy. But neither of them, nor Eric Carter, appear to be on the cusp of breaking out and adding a new dimension to the offense.
That leaves the redshirted freshmen and possibly any incoming freshmen to be a new weapon for Leidner. Isaiah Gentry was possibly going to be an impact freshman before an injury relegated him to the redshirt army. In the long-run this may be a blessing but he potentially has the skill set to be a breakout receiver. Melvin Holland Jr and Desmond Gant are also big and athletic receivers who maybe needed the past year to sharpen the finer points of being a D1 receiver. Both are also capable of becoming something much more than we have seen over the last couple seasons. Will they? Will one or more of the three help this passing game out? This will be a very interesting group to watch throughout the spring and fall camps. Running back is a key question but one that I think has a few possible answers, this position however is a total mystery.
Incoming freshmen, we have a few but I would be shocked to see any of them make an impact this year. There is ample opportunity, but I do not think it is likely.
Returning Starter: none really
Leaving: Maxx Williams, Drew Goodger
Other Returners: Brandon Lingen, Duke Anyanwu, Lincoln Plsek, Nate Wozniak
Incoming: Jerry Gibson (rFR)
Primary Question for 2015: How will we remotely replace the production of Maxx Williams.
The answer is, we won't. There isn't a first round talent on the roster who will step in and be the weapon that Maxx was. But who will fill in and can we get some contributions to make this loss less of a blow? Someone like Anyanwu or Gibson have the talent to be receiving threats but may not be ready to handle the rigors of blocking in this run-first offense. Anyanwu is listed at 250 pounds and is the likely best option to be an everydown guy to replace Maxx, but coming back healthy is going to be the concern.
The depth chart for the Missouri game listed freshman, Brandon Lingen as the backup to Williams. Lingen was named the team's outstanding offensive freshman of the year. But keep an eye on Duke Ayanwu, who tore his ACL last fall, to be an athletic replacement to Maxx. Jerry Gibson is potentially a TE who would be a dangerous receiving threat, but according to Limegrover he needs more size to be the team's H-Back and will begin camp as a wide receiver.
Returning Starter: Josh Campion (G/T), Ben Lauer (T), Jonah Pirsig (T), Joe Bjorklund (G)
Leaving: Tommy Olson (C), Zach Epping (G)
Other Returners: Foster Bush (T), Isaac Hayes (G), Joe Christenson (C), Connor Mayes (G/C)
Incoming: Tyler Moore (tFR)
Primary Question for 2015: What will the starting five be?
Spring practice will be interesting as it appears there will be some moving of guys to different positions to see how they fit. All of this will go to figuring out who starts and where when we host TCU next August. Personally I don't have a lot of questions along the offensive line as this is a pretty deep and largely experienced group of linemen. The losses of Olson and Epping are significant but there are eight guys returning who have at least of eight games of experience under their belt and 88 combined starts among them. Offensive line is not an area I am not terribly concerned about.
Josh Campion has been a fixture at RT, starting all 39 games over his three years but he is one of the guys who may get some looks at a new position this spring. They will look at moving him to G for his senior year to allow room for Pirsig, Lauer or Bush to start at the tackle spots. If they are trying to get the combination of their best five on the field and you have to move one of your best to a new position, give it a shot and see how it works this spring.
The other guard is not set and will be likely filled by Bjorklund or Hayes or maybe even Mayes. Bjorklund has started 7 games in his career, playing in 20 while Hayes will enter his sophomore year having participated in all 13 games last year.
Center is probably the most interesting battle for playing time. Joe Christenson recently got a steel rod taken out of his leg and if healthy the starting center job certainly within his grasp. But Connor Mayes, who saw time as a true freshman, and Brian Bobek will get plenty of reps this spring to establish themselves in the 2-deep.
So if I had to guess at next year's starting line? I'd project...
T - Lauer / Bush
G - Bjorklund / Hayes
C - Christenson / Mayes
G - Campion / Hayes
T - Pirsig / Bush
After four years of the Jerry Kill reign in Dinkytown, I think we now have a good idea of what we can typically expect. The defense is going to be just fine. The offensive line is going to be solid. And special teams is going to be good as well. In order for this program to take another step, to be able to get themselves to Indianapolis with a Big Ten West first place finish, it is going to need the offense to take a step forward.