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Minnesota Football’s five biggest questions for 2018

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It was an underwhelming debut season for P.J. Fleck and there are plenty of questions for the offseason ahead

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers’ first season under new head coach P.J. Fleck has to come a close after Saturday’s 31-0 loss to Wisconsin. The Gophers finished the season 5-7 overall, with a Big Ten conference record of 2-7. Now the offseason begins, as Fleck and the coaching staff hit the recruiting trail ahead of the early signing period that begins on Wednesday, Dec. 20. But here at The Daily Gopher, we’re already looking ahead to next season. With nine months until the Gophers take the field against New Mexico State, these are the five big questions we have for Fleck’s squad ahead of his sophomore campaign at the helm.

5. Can the Gophers row their boat back to a bowl game? The Gophers’ streak of six consecutive bowl games is over. Fleck has stated that he aspires to loftier goals than six wins and a bowl game — often citing the Gophers’ decades-long Big Ten championship drought as one of the challenges that attracted him to Minnesota — but you have to walk before you can run. If the Gophers are sitting at home again next winter, it’ll be another missed opportunity for a roster that would benefit from the additional bowl practices, and it won’t sit well with fans eager to see forward progress under Fleck. Looking ahead to next year’s schedule, the Gophers open the season with three non-conference games at home, their toughest test coming against Fresno State, but will hit the road for five conference games, including trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin. Six of their twelve opponents are bowling this season.

4. Can Ed Warinner continue to build the offensive line? Minnesota will lose Garrison Wright, Vincent Calhoun, and Nick Connelly, who combined for 23 starts this season, but returns starting tackles Donnell Greene and Sam Schlueter, guard Conner Olson, and center Jared Weyler. All four of them started at least six games this season. Depth will continue to be an issue though. Behind those four, in terms of scholarship offensive linemen, will be two redshirt juniors, one redshirt sophomore, four redshirt freshman, and four true freshman.

In terms of how the line fared under offensive line coach Ed Warinner this season, I turned to our friends at Football Outsiders to help gauge their performance:

  • Adjusted Line Yards: 104th in 2016, 53rd in 2017
  • Opportunity Rate (percentage of carries, when five yards are available, that gain at least five yards): 66th in 2016, 68th in 2017
  • Power Success Rate (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown): 105th in 2016, 34th in 2017
  • Stuff Rate (percentage of carries by running backs that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage): 92nd in 2016, 42nd in 2017
  • Adjusted Sack Rate: 31st in 2016, 102nd in 2017

With the exception of opportunity rate and adjusted sack rate, the Gophers’ offensive line appears to have improved for the most part, so Warinner has them on the right track. The question this unit will face is whether they can sustain and improve upon that success.

3. Can defensive coordinator Robb Smith improve the run defense? If you want to win a Big Ten Championship, you have to be able to stop the run. The last five teams to hoist the Stagg Championship Trophy all ranked in the Top 50 in rushing defense. Both Wisconsin and Ohio State, who will square off in Saturday’s conference title game, rank in the Top 15 in rushing defense. The Gophers’ run defense finished the season tied for 72nd in the country, allowing 172.2 rushing yards per game. Minnesota only allowed an average of 59 rushing yards per game during their non-conference slate, but struggled mightily at times when the competition improved. The Gophers allowed at least 245 rushing yards to five opponents this season — Michigan State (245), Maryland (262) Northwestern (277), Wisconsin (287), and Michigan (371). That’s not a championship-level run defense. Injuries certainly played a part, but poor tackling, bad angles, and undisciplined run fits were all culprits at one point or another.

2. Who will step up at wide receiver outside of Tyler Johnson? The sophomore wide receiver had a breakout season (35 receptions, 677 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns) before breaking his hand against Nebraska and missing the final two games of the season. The rest of the Gophers’ wide receiver corps? Not so much. True freshman Demetrius Douglas showed potential through three games, but missed the rest of the season with an undisclosed injury. Junior Rashad Still, tabbed during spring ball as a likely focal point of the passing game, struggled on and off the field. Redshirt freshman Phillip Howard emerged late in the season as a viable option, but 11 receptions for 132 receiving yards is barely a blip on the radar. But I have faith in Fleck and wide receivers coach Matt Simon, who groomed Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis into a Top 5 NFL Draft pick. I would keep an eye on Douglas and fellow freshman Chris Autman-Bell next year. Incoming freshmen Rashod Bateman, Erik Gibson, and Jornell Manns all could see the field, as well.

1. Can the Gophers field a competent quarterback? Minnesota began the season with two starting quarterbacks — redshirt senior Conor Rhoda and redshirt sophomore Demry Croft — and enters the offseason with none now that Croft has announced he is transferring from the program. Croft struggled in six starts for the Gophers, so his departure isn’t a huge blow to the offense, but it does leave the quarterback position nearly depleted for next season. True freshman Tanner Morgan and redshirt freshman Seth Green have eight college snaps between them and neither one has attempted a pass. Yesterday’s verbal commitment from JUCO quarterback Vic Viramontes adds intrigue to a quarterback competition that will likely start in the spring and continue through the fall. Whomever is under center to start the season opener next year will certainly need help from their young and inexperienced wide receivers to be successful, but having a playmaker at quarterback would do wonders for this offense.

What is your biggest question for P.J. Fleck and the Gophers?