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Minnesota Football: 5 Questions as Gophers Open Fall Camp and 2016 Season

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 Season begins today for Gopher Football.  Practice number one is today and the season is officially underway.  This season the Gophers have pretty high expectations and there are some very real reasons for optimism. Gopher fans are excited as the team brings back a multi-year starter at QB, have better depth in nearly all position groups and a dynamic set of running backs following a good season where nearly everything that could have gone wrong, did.

But this is far from a complete team, it is not a Big Ten West favorite and there are some questions that need to be answered on both sides of the ball if this team is going to hit that 8 or 9 win mark that many believe is achievable.

1 - Is the Offensive Line Going to be Dramatically Improved?

Part of the OL is a known commodity and should be solid while the rest are very much unknown.  New offensive line coach, Bart Miller has come in with a very good reputation and trying to instill some attitude in this new line.  RT is locked down by Jonah Pirsig who should be very good there, he started all 13 games last season and 7 as a sophomore.  Tyler Moore was thrown into action as a true freshman at center, started the final 8 games of the year and did a very nice job, hopefully he gets better with experience and added strength.  At LG is likely going to be Junior, Connor Mayes who started 9 games last year as a sophomore.  He'll be relied upon to be a fixture at G this year.

Then it gets interesting and it is likely going to come down to two JUCO transfers at LT and RG.  Garrison Wright and Vincent Calhoun are considered by many to be the starters at LT and RG.  I am confident in the play of the three returners but we will need at these two guys to be as good as we hope if this OL is going to be dramatically improved.

Beyond those 5 we have depth concerns as well.  It looks like RS Freshman Bronson Dovich may be the first in line to get snaps at G.  Junior, Chad Fanning is a good bet to see time at one of the outside spots if needed and Jared Weyler is also going to get a look at any of the three interior positions.  And finally Donnell Green could be a factor, but this summer addition will not be on campus participating on day 1.

2 -Defensive Backfield Replaces a LOT!

Much like the offensive line, there are a couple starters here that I like a lot...but after that you have to fill the other two spots with capable guys.  Graduating Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray and Antonio Johnson are significant losses.  Jalen Myrick at corner and Damrius Travis are potentially All-Big Ten caliber starters, I'm not worried about anything other than injury when it comes to those two.

But after that I worry about the other starter and depth with players who may be very talented but are yet unproven.  Last year Anotnio Shenault and KiAnte Hardin stepped in nicely as true freshmen at corner.  I believe you'll see Hardin as the starter opposite Myrick in week 1.  But he and Shenault have 1 combined start and are sophomores expected to be leaders in the defensive backfield.  You'll see them both and really we need them both to be improved and sound.  Then it comes down to a group of freshmen, all very talented but...they're freshmen.  Ray Buford is a redshirt freshmen but his game experience is the same as Coney Durr, Kiondre Thomas and Antoine Winfield Jr.

At safety I would expect to see Ace Rogers starting opposite Travis. He is a senior and has experience and has been solid.  But Duke McGhee, Adekunle Ayinde, grad transfer Eric Amoako and Dior Johnson all figure to factor in. Safety and leadership at that level is a concern of Claeys...

You know, that's where, again, we just go to awfully young people in a hurry, and they have the skill to play the position, and so that's why that's my second concern is behind Kunle and Damarius is who's going to step up and be able to make those calls and get people lined up and adjust to motions. So that's my second concern.

But depth and finding a couple starters are key concerns.

3 - New Coaching Staff

It feels like everything is sort of the same, but really the Gophers have a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive coordinator and a new offensive line coach.  We've enjoyed continuity among the coaching staff for the time Jerry Kill was here.  But Claeys bumps up to HC and Sawvell bumps up to DC...I think it is fair to wonder how they'll do?  Sawvell was a fantastic defensive backs coach, but is he going to be "as good" at DC?  I really like what I've seen and heard from Tracy, but now he gets a full season at the HC and hopefully he's prepared and ready to lead a team that has a chance win a lot of games.

Then on the offensive side of the ball we have a couple key new coaches as well.  Many had their issues with Matt Limegrover but just replacing him does not guarantee an improvement.  So far I love what I'm hearing from and about Jay Johnson as the new coordinator.  I'm very excited that we are likely not going to be installing dozens of new plays and altering game plans each week. Mitch Leidner likes this too.

"I think with our offensive coordinator, there's no question that [consistency] is going to improve immensely," Leidner said. "Because last year we were changing up game plans every single week, and we were coming in with 100 new plays and guys' heads would be spinning. We wouldn't be able to practice at full speed. It was just tough."

And Bart Miller had some success at Wisconsin in the same role and I look forward to seeing him work some magic to improve our OL...but again...I think it is fair to say that this and the rest of the coaching staff changes are fair questions to be answered.  These are probably ones we won't see answered until we are a few games into the season but they are important ones.

4 - Depth at Defensive End

This position group and it's lack of play-makers AND depth probably concerns me the most.  Hank Ekpe and Gaelin Elmore are likely your starters.  And then you have a lot of guys who have played very little.  Jerry Gibson has been a TE for 2 years, Julien Kafo participated in just 2 games last year, Winston DeLattiboudere is a redshirt freshman and then you have two very lightly recruited true freshmen.  This position group has little depth.  Fortunately, Tracy Claeys believes that if we need to we can throw some bigger linebackers at end and be OK getting pressure on the quarterback.

5 - Which Wide Receiver Steps Up

Or which oneS step up?  KJ Maye really had a fantastic senior season.  He not only put up some of the best numbers since Eric Decker but he made a lot of key plays to move the chains and made plays to help win games.  He'll be missed and somebody needs to step it up.  For two years we have heard about a number of athletic receivers with tremendous ability, time to see one or more blossom.

Drew Wolitarsky is the most likely candidate to be the go-to receiver for Leidner.  The senior has been up and down, making some key plays at times last year but also disappearing occasionally.  He needs to be a leader and the guy Mitch can count on.  Eric Carter is going to get a lot of snaps as well and you may see his receptions take a big jump for him.  But neither of these two are really "big-play" kind of receivers and who is going to be that guy?

Rashad Still is a likely candidate after coming out a little big at the end of his freshman season.  I like this kid a lot, especially as he enters his sophomore year.  If he steps up, this offense becomes much more dangerous and dynamic.  After that look for possibly Hunter Register, Isaiah Gentry or even Melvin Holland Jr to take that next step.

Those are my 5 big questions for camp.  If I were to add a 6th, it would be "which true freshman contribute" cause there are always a couple.  My vote would be one or two or all three of the freshmen corners.   But I digress.  SO EXCITED FOR FOOTBALL!!!