Transitioning from 2014 to 2015 the Gopher offense is in the crosshairs as the key to sustained success for Gopher football. Most believe that the defense is going to be very good and special teams will be one of the Big Ten's best as well. If the Gophers want to take another step forward, it all depends on the offense. This year there are a couple significant pieces to replace and several intriguing additions.
RETURNING: Mitch Leidner, Chris Streveler, Jacques Perra, Conor Rhoda
INCOMING: Demry Croft
Usually when a team is returning a junior quarterback who started every game he was healthy as a sophomore, there is reason for real optimism. But cautious optimism leads the way here. Leidner brings a number of things to the table as the Gophers unquestioned number one QB. He is a good leader, he seems to make good decisions and he plays with toughness. He brings a lot of intangibles to the huddle. What he is missing is an arm that other teams know can beat them if they aren't careful.
Leidner, thus far in his Gopher career, has been adequate. He runs the ball well, makes good zone/read decisions and lead his team to the best bowl game they have earned in decades (where he played very well I might add). But the team's success came largely on the back of a great defense, great running game and very good special teams. The passing game was occasionally a necessity. For the offense to take a step forward, the passing game cannot average 142 yards per game and finish 13th in the Big Ten.
Leidner was actually pretty good against what was a good Missouri defense in the Citrus Bowl. 258 yards passing on 21/31 with a touchdown and no interceptions. A glass-half-full kinda guy would look at this as a positive going into the 2015 season. A glass-half-empty guy would tell you that most of those receptions and yards were to guys who made plays after the catch and are no longer with the program (I'll miss you Maxx Williams). I do believe that Leidner is a fine quarterback and as long as he's not asked to do too much he will lead this team to plenty of wins. He needs to improve a little bit but nobody is expecting him to win any All-Big Ten awards.
What happens should Leidner injure himself? Well this is actually a plausible scenario considering how often he carries the ball and his desire to run through defenders. Should he lose time the offense will be handed to sophomore Chris Streveler. He is a less accomplished passer who is faster. In 2014 Streveler was required to start one game and completed one pass for the game, on seven attempts. That was a lot of running and fortunately he didn't need to do any more than that and the Gophers handled San Jose State. I am sure he will continue to improve and would be more reliable than he was as a true freshman but there seems to be no question who the starter is and Streveler isn't about to turn this into a QB controversy.
Next up would likely be Jacques Perra, a walk-on from Roseville who might be the best passer of the bunch. And Demry Croft is the incoming freshman who I assume will redshirt and have a chance to compete for the starting job in 2017 after Leidner graduates.
2014 Grade: C+
2015 Preseason Grade: B-
GONE: David Cobb, Donnell Kirkwood
RETURNING: Rodrick Williams Jr, Berkley Edwards
REDSHIRTED: Rodney Smith, Jeff Jones
INCOMING: James Johannesson, Jonathan Femi-Cole and Shannon Brooks
Just the complete opposite of our quarterback situation, the Gopher offense has to replace one of their most productive players in recent history. David Cobb set the Gopher single-season rushing record last year with 1,626 yards finished his career 7th all-time with 2,893 career yards. Replacing his production is one of the biggest questions facing this Gopher offense.
It appears as though three of the names above will get the first looks at being the guy to carry the load. Rodrick Williams, aka "Nugget," is the most experienced of the bunch and just because he didn't play much last year, doesn't mean he wasn't productive and talented.
But he's leaned up, and he's lost about 12, 13 pounds, and he's a tough, tough guy. We've got to remember, he had a big run against Nebraska, popped and got a big run in the bowl game. He can play, he just happened to be behind David Cobb.
I fully expect to see Nugget lining up behind Leidner on the first offensive play from scrimmage in the TCU game. But this will be a three-horse race early and eventually one guy will take the lead and be given his chance to be the primary back. Williams is the vet, Edwards is the speed guy, Rodney Smith is the new guy who might be the best combination of the bunch and Jeff Jones is the dynamic newcomer who will likely move to WR for now.
Edwards had some hype coming into last season and never really produced in the way some of us had hoped. A potential change-of-pace guy when David Cobb needed a rest with break-away speed and game-changing ability. But it never materialized. This year he is coming to camp with some added weight, giving him a body more physically ready for the Big Ten season. It is important to remember two things here. First, David Cobb took a couple years to figure things out before he turned into one of the Big Ten's best. Secondly, Berkley Edwards may also figure it out, but just because Cobb did doesn't mean everybody else will.
Rodney Smith redshirted in 2014 and has received some early praise this spring and summer. Smith has some ability and it shouldn't really be a shock if he steps up to grab hold of the position and never let it go. Many think that at some point in the season Smith will be the one who takes control of the backfield and becomes the guy who leads the team in carries and yards.
Jeff Jones is also very talented, may eventually be our running back of the future, but in an effort to get our 11 most talented players on the field, he is going to be playing WR to start his Gopher career.
After those four you have a few freshmen, I'd be surprised if they do not all redshirt. Johannesson is a Fargo kid who is supposed to be a unique combination of toughness, size and deceptive speed. There is talk that he may eventually move to linebacker, but he could also be one of those under-the-radar recruits who ends up being a significant contributor. Femi-Cole is a Canadian workout warrior, comes to the program strong and ready for a Big Ten beating. Brooks is a Georgia native, has great size already and will be a nice back for the Gophers down the road.
I think overall I like the three backs expected to compete for virtually all of the carries this year. You know what you've got in Nugget and there is potential for another dynamic back to emerge in Edwards, Smith or even Jones. Big shoes to fill after Cobb's record-breaking season, but don't count this group out.
2014 Grade: A
2015 Preseason Grade: B-
GONE: Isaac Fruechte, Logan Hutton, Devon Wright
RETURNING: K.J. Maye, Drew Wolitarsky, Eric Carter
REDSHIRTED: Melvin Holland Jr, Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant
INCOMING: Rashad Still, Hunter Register, Adam Mayer
Several names above and the Gophers are looking for a couple of them to step up to really help the Gopher passing game out. There were 127 total receptions made by a Gopher last season, which is obviously split up amongst receivers, tight ends and running backs. 82 of those receptions (65%) are gone. Clearly there are some gaps to fill, or opportunities to be seized.
I'll begin with the two receivers expected to be the early starters and really the only two with meaningful experience. K.J. Maye and Drew Wolitarsky are the most experienced and have had flashes of success. Maye ended the season with over half of his receptions/yards coming in the final three games of the season. Ryan Burns of Scout's Gopher Digest predicts Maye will be a breakout player($) for the Gopher offense. And Kill had this to say about Maye in his season opening press conference.
"KJ Maye had even a better year," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said on Tuesday at his opening press conference. "As we go back through film, KJ Maye had a pretty good year last year, and he has stepped up his game, so we need him to continue to grow in that."
Maye could end up starting in the slot or outside opposite Drew Wolitarsky. I expect that the senior from Alabama will be a major contributor this year, perhaps doubling his 2014 numbers. A doubling wouldn't exactly put him into the territory of being a recognizeable name to anyone else in the Big Ten, but it would be a nice bump for the Gopher offense.
On the outside will be Wolitarsky, a 6'3" junior from California where he set state records for receptions and receiving yards. Woli has been plagued by injuries over his first two seasons missing several games in both seasons. But he is currently healthy and ready to take a step. Good size and reliable hands, Wolitarsky needs to stay healthy and be a consistent target for Leidner.
After those two there are a handful of kids who possess a ton of athletic ability and talent. The anticipation is that at least one will emerge to give the Gophers a dynamic threat, one that Big Ten defenses will recognize as a legitimate threat if they focus too much on stopping the Gopher running game.
I mentioned Jeff Jones above as one of those who may be one of those break-out players. Just too talented to keep off the field and moving to receiver in an attempt to get him involved in the offense. After him is a trio of red-shirt, freshman receivers...anyone of which could transform their athleticism into production, but who will emerge is one of the questions to be answered this Fall. Melvin Holland Jr (6'3", 196), Isaiah Gentry (6'4", 204) and Desmond Gant (6'3", 214) all three have very nice size and are intriguing prospects. All three have received public praise from the coaching staff at different points throughout their redshirt season, Spring practice or for their reported progress through the summer.
Unless they blow the staff away this fall, expect the three true freshmen to redshirt. I believe I read that Mayer (a walk-on) is impressing, but that turning into production on the field this Fall seems unlikely.
2014 Grade: C
2015 Preseason Grade: C+
GONE: Maxx Williams. Drew Goodger
RETURNING: Duke Anyanwu, Brandon Lingen, Lincoln Plsek, Nate Wozniak, Noah Scarver, Nick Hart
REDHIRTED: Jerry Gibson
INCOMING: Bryce Witham, Colton Beebe
Maxx Williams will be missed. Able to leap Big Ten defenders in a single bound and crush the will of opposing defenses with acrobatic third-and-long catches. But he is no longer with us and we have to get used to that fact. Up next are several eager and ready to see more time on the field.
This is nothing official or technical but the Gophers employ more than 1 tight end often. Maxx Williams was the kind of TE that was heavily utilized in the passing game while Goodger and Plsek were far more valuable on the blocking end of things more than they were catching the ball.
Duke Anyanwu is going to be a more dynamic receiving threat and from a receptions standpoint may be the one who fills the void left by Williams more than anyone else. The Blaine native injured his knee as a true freshman in 2012, played sparingly in 2013 and then injured his knee again in 2014. He was granted a medical redshirt and still has three years to play. Hopefully 100% to start Fall camp and projected by many to be a starting TE this Fall.
Lincoln Plsek has played in 34 games as a Gopher, started a couple and is already a valuable member of the offense. Usually unheralded, such is the life when you are a blocking TE. Eight total receptions over his career, I expect that number to go up but not significantly. But you will see #85 on the field plenty this Fall, likely as a starter.
Brandon Lingen played in 11 games as a freshman and actually was a starter for the TCU game. Lingen is more of a balanced end who should see his role expanded quite a bit in his sophomore season. He is recovering from a broken collar bone, but should be good to go this Fall and may be a semi-breakout candidate.
Then we get to a couple of very intriguing tight ends on the roster in redshirt freshman Jerry Gibson and the massive Nate Wozniak. Gibson is big, athletic, fast and potentially was going to be moved to wide receiver. For now he is going to be a potentially dangerous, pass-catching tight end who could eventually be a real match-up problem for Big Ten defenses. Wozniak is 6'10". I could stop typing right there. But the sophomore saw a bit of action last season and could be an interesting player to watch this year. A red-zone nightmare for linebackers who is developing into an all-around Tight End.
The rest of the names? Scarver and Hart will both likely see some time on the field as this position is murky and has room for someone to step up and grab snaps either as a blocker, a receiver or both.
2014 Grade: A
2015 Preseason Grade: C+
GONE: Zac Epping, Tommy Olson, Marek Lenkiewicz,
RETURNING: Josh Campion, Ben Lauer, Jonah Pirsig, Joe Bjorklund, Brian Bobek, Isaac Hayes, Foster Bush, Jon Christenson, Connor Mayes, Alex Mayes
REDSHIRTED: Jared Weyler, Luke Rasmussen
INCOMING: Tyler Moore, Ted Stieber, Nick Connelly,
I'll break this down by position. But this is a pretty experienced and talented group returning. Kill emphasized a couple times in his opening press conference that in order for the passing game to get better, it all starts with the interior line not getting pushed back into Leidner's face. Hard to be too critical of the 2014 line that made room for Cobb's record breaking season but there is room for improvement.
TACKLE - at tackle the staff made an interesting move by taking Campion, who started 39 consecutive games at one of the tackle spots, to the interior for his senior year and leaving room for Jonah Pirsig and Ben Lauer to take over on the outside. Both are juniors, both are Minnesota boys, both are large young men and both are primed to have big seasons for the Gopher offense. Behind them expect senior, Foster Bush to be the primary back at both spots and I wouldn't rule out Bush pushing for a start.
GUARD - Campion, as mentioned, moves inside and should be a lock to be one of the best interior linemen in the Big Ten. The other starter at G is going to be more interesting. Joe Bjorklund would be my best guess to start but it could be Christenson or Hayes or even a true freshman in Tyler Moore. Ryan Burns of GopherDigest had this to say about the Texas freshman who was here for Spring Practices,
The Texas native really was a tone setter throughout the spring along the offensive line and wasn't afraid to get into it with anyone. His tenacity and mindset are exactly what this group need with the loss of Zac Epping.
Moore drew praise more than a few times from offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Matt Limegrover this spring about his abilities and how he has a chance to be a special player before his time is over in Minnesota. While Moore may just be a back up this fall, heading into 2016 with the Gophers losing all of their interior starters, Moore has a chance to make a Texas size impact in the very near future.
Some of what happens at G is dependant on what happens at C.
CENTER - Christenson was the starting center in 2013 before an injury ended his season. In 2014 he proved his versatility and played G while Tommy Olson manned the C spot. Now it is going to be a camp battle among Christenson (who may just be better suited to play LG), Brian Bobek (the Ohio State transfer who has battle injuries throughout his career) or Connor Mayes who played as a true freshman last season and could conceivably anchor the center for the next three seasons. Mayes also has interior versatility and could move over to guard as needed.
Expect to see Alex Mayes on the two-deep as well, probably on the outside.
Those are a lot of names along the line but this is a strong group who I think has a better season than last year.
2014 Grade: B
2015 Preseason Grade: B+