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Minnesota Football: The Gophers’ five biggest questions for next season

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Minnesota is coming off its first nine-win season since 2003, but an offseason of uncertainty begins

National Funding Holiday Bowl - Minnesota v Washington State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers closed the book on the 2016 season with a 17-12 victory over the Washington State Cougars in the Holiday Bowl, completing their first nine-win season since 2003. But there are plenty of question marks heading into next season, especially in light of recent events off the field.

5. Can the Gophers solve their woes at wide receiver? The Gophers’ problems at the wide receiver position have been well documented. This season was no exception, with no one other than senior receiver Drew Wolitarsky showing signs of becoming a reliable option in the passing game. Now that Wolitarsky is graduating, the next best receiver is sophomore Rashad Still, who hauled in 18 passes for 349 yards with no touchdowns. Freshman Tyler Johnson had a promising start to the season before fading down the stretch. Junior Eric Carter continues to be a non-factor. Minnesota had one of the least explosive offenses in college football this season, and the lack of weapons at the wide receiver position is a significant part of that. I don’t know if the problem is coaching or talent or both, but the Gophers need to figure it out, because the passing offense isn’t going to improve if this coaching staff can’t find a difference maker in the wide receiver corps. Time to earn your paycheck, Brian Anderson.

4. Will the offensive line improve in the second year under Bart Miller? Senior offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig is the lone departure among the starters on the offensive line, but the returning starters didn’t do a lot this season to inspire confidence going into next year. Sophomore running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks rushed for a combined 1,808 yards, but much of their success was due to their ability to make something out of nothing. The offensive line was banged up most of the season, but suffered from zero depth and a lack of discipline at times. It’ll be interesting to see which underclassmen step up to contribute this spring, otherwise depth will continue to be a problem. The coaches have signed yet another JUCO offensive lineman, their fourth in the last year. It could take a couple recruiting classes to adequately address the personnel issues. Offensive line coach Bart Miller has his work cut out for him.

3. Who replaces Mitch Leidner at quarterback? In his career at Minnesota, Leidner started 41 games, attempted more than 1,000 passes, and threw for more than 7,200 passing yards over four seasons. Sophomore Demry Croft, with 17 career pass attempts in three games as a freshman, is now the most experienced quarterback on the roster. His chief competitor for the starting quarterback position was expected to be freshman Seth Green, but he and fellow freshman quarterback Mark Williams could exit the program if their suspensions are upheld. That leaves Croft and incoming JUCO quarterback Neil McLaurin as the lone scholarship signal callers on the roster. McLaurin is an uninspiring candidate on paper, completing 85 of 161 pass attempts for 964 passing yards with 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions this season at Southwest Mississippi C.C. I know there is a vocal contingent of Gopher fans elated to see a fresh face under center, but success is not a certainty for either Croft or McLaurin. The spring game in April will offer our best look at both quarterbacks ahead of the season opener against Buffalo. But those of you expecting an immediate improvement over the often inconsistent play of Leidner should temper your expectations.

2. Can the Gophers overcome the roster attrition if the recommendations from the Title IX investigation are upheld? In January, each of the 10 suspended players will have their appeal hearings, so we won’t know until then whether or not the penalties will be overturned. Let’s assume all of the recommendations are upheld. Cornerbacks KiAnte Hardin and Ray Buford and safety Dior Johnson would be expelled. Safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. would be suspended, and would almost certainly transfer. It could also mean the departure of cornerback Antonio Shenault, who would be on probation. That leaves true freshmen Coney Durr and Kiondre Thomas and redshirt freshman Zo Craighton at cornerback. Durr and Craighton didn’t play a snap at cornerback until the Holiday Bowl and Thomas redshirted this season. At safety, the Gophers are left with juniors Duke McGhee and Kunle Ayinde and sophomore Jacob Huff. In total, that would be six scholarship defensive backs, plus any signees from the incoming recruiting class. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel proved he is a brilliant strategist with a defensive gem against Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, but I don’t know that he can sustain that for an entire season with no depth whatsoever in the secondary.

1. Will Tracy Claeys be the head coach? I suspect we won’t have to wait long to find out the answer to this question. On the field, Claeys had a solid debut season at the helm, leading the Gophers’ to their first nine-win campaign since 2003. All four losses came against teams currently ranked in the Top 25, and in all four losses the Gophers held a lead at halftime or in the fourth quarter. But off the field, an incident that occurred the night of the season opener has cast a shadow over the season and now threatens to have a lasting impact on the program moving forward. Once the 10 suspensions were handed down and the rest of the team decided to launch a short-lived boycott, Claeys was caught awkwardly between the administration and the players, and he made it clear where his allegiances lie with a perhaps ill-advised Tweet. I don’t fault Claeys for supporting his players, but I don’t know if athletic director Mark Coyle will be quite as understanding. There are certainly those who feel Claeys should be terminated as the scapegoat for this whole mess. At this point, Coyle needs to either extend him or fire him. Leaving his three-year contract as is would almost certainly serve as a death knell for Claeys.