Year three was a breakthrough season for PJ Fleck and his staff. Ten wins and playing in a New Year’s Day 6 Bowl game is a great season for Gopher Football. Hosting College Game Day, playing on the final Saturday with a very real chance at a Big Ten West title and winning 10 regular season games was quite an accomplishment.
Before we move on to the Outback Bowl and facing Auburn, let’s take a look at some of the questions facing the 2020 Gophers.
There is one overall question that is going to really define the 2020 season.
Who replaces the 7 starters on defense?
For all of the talk about what a young team this is, the fact is that there were quite a few upper classmen on this 2019 defense. There will be 6 seniors graduating and very likely one more who will be leaving early for the NFL. Replacing 7 starters or regular contributors on defense is no small task. And if we are being honest, this defense was just OK.
This unit was pretty good at not giving up big plays and their pass defense was ahead of their run defense. But now we are replacing 2 starting linebackers and 3 starters along the defensive line. This is a significant question. If this side of the ball can show slight improvement overall (in spite of replacing so many contributors), this Gopher team in 2020 could be even more dangerous.
Moving on from the BIG question. Up next is one question that needs to be answered for each position group.
QB - Who is the backup to Tanner Morgan?
For the past two seasons the Gophers entered fall camp with a competition at quarterback. In 2018 it was the true freshman Zack Annexstad who won the job early but injuries forced redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan to start the final six games of the season where he had a 4-2 record. Entering 2019 it was assumed to be another quarterback battle but once again Annexstad was lost to injury and Morgan ran with the job. His 2019 season was one of the best seasons by a Gopher quarterback in decades. While he may not be guaranteed anything next fall, I think we can all agree it would take a rather impressive offseason by one of the other quarterbacks to unseat him.
So that begs the question...who will be the backup to Morgan in 2020? Will it be one of this year’s true freshmen? Could Jacob Clark or Cole Kramer be the primary backup? Or will it fall on Annexstad, the presumed starter last July.
Perhaps we are fortunate enough that Morgan remains healthy for all but 2 snaps of the season again. But I doubt we’ll be that lucky. Who is the backup QB will matter.
RB - Can the running game improve?
This is not as much about who will be the primary carrier, but considering the offensive line returns everyone, can the Gopher offense get more production out of their running game? Net yards this was the 5th best rushing team in the Big Ten, so am I complaining? No. But there were few times when this team could rely on their ground game to dominate.
An additional year of continuity, experience and strength added for the offensive line should be a critical factor here. But we are also losing a couple very talented backs in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks.
I’d like to imagine that threat of Rashod Bateman as one of the best receivers in the country will put less focus on stopping the Gopher rushing attack, as it quietly becomes a very real strength.
WR - Who is the team’s 3rd WR?
Is it strange that the team is graduating a 1st team All-Big Ten player who will be drafted and I’m not that concerned about this position group? Rashod Bateman is a super stud and Chris Autman-Bell is going to be an excellent complimentary option. The question becomes, who emerges at the #3 receiving threat. Cause CAB was often needed last year in that 3rd WR role.
But there are a number of names as options. Demtrius Douglas is the most logical choice to see more snaps, and he has the talent to emerge. Perhaps incoming freshman Daniel Jackson will find a home in the slot and emerge. Or any of this year’s true freshman could potentially find their way into the regular rotation.
This spot is less critical and I have complete faith in the staff’s ability to evaluate & groom WR talent. Two spots are pretty well locked, who becomes the team’s third WR is very much TBD.
OL - Who emerges to add more depth to the OL?
Very rarely are you able to return your entire offensive line and the Gophers are returning their top 6 offensive linemen. I have complete confidence in this group after a slow start, they became pretty good. I expect more next year, but this was a solid unit. In fact all five starters earned at least honorable mention for All-Conference this season.
But depth needs to be established and guys have to be ready either for 2021 or if there are injuries. Who emerges?
DL - Can the Gophers get a consistent pass rush without blitzing?
This is probably the most important question for me. After graduating Carter Coughlin, Winston DeLattiboudere, Tai’yon Devers and Sam Renner from a season when getting pressure with the front four wasn’t good enough; are we going to be able to improve upon this in 2020?
It gets back to the overarching question about replacing so many starters/contributors on defense, but very specifically...can they generate a pass rush with just their front four.
I’d have to imagine that if any of this year’s freshman could have made an impact, we would have seen them on the field. But maybe D’vion Harris or MJ Anderson become a great edge rusher. Maybe Deangelo Carter, Jamal Teague or Rashad Cheney Jr can be that rusher from the inside. Or maybe it is Boye Mafe or Esezi Otomewo who see the light come on for them in their junior seasons.
I think the Iowa game is a great example of how much better this defense can be if there is some pressure in the backfield from the front four. When that wasn’t working they were forced to blitz. The secondary is pretty good, they’ll be better if there’s pressure from the defensive line.
LB - Who starts at LB?
The losses of Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin are going to be huge. The silver lining here is that Mariano Sori-Marin, Thomas Rush and Braelin Oliver all saw significant action this past season. These guys are young, have gained some valuable experience and now will be expected to step into leadership roles on this side of the ball.
In addition to those three names the staff was supposedly very high on true freshmen James Gordon IV and Donald Willis. Between those 5 names, three are needed to play well.
At this position it is so important to know your assignment and do that job. Trusting your reads so you aren’t biting on fakes and filling the gap you are supposed to fill to stop the run. Experience matters at this position and we need three who are going to be consistent.
DB - What young guy steps up to compliment Durr and St. Juste?
On defense, the secondary was not hit all that hard with attrition. Antoine Winfield is expected to leave for the NFL and Chris Williamson will graduate leaving one safety and the nickel spot open.
This unit should be the strength of the 2020 Gopher defense and what may take it from good to great (or even elite) is if one of the young corners steps up to be a guy you just can’t take off the field. Terell Smith had a promising start to his freshman season but struggled as a sophomore. His size and speed make him a unique prospect, one who could be quite dominant once he figures everything out.
Tyler Nubin is the only true freshman to have played all year (on offense or defense) and stands to be in the mix to start at corner or nickle.
The other safety spot is up for grabs as well, whoever claims this (or if by some miracle we get Winfield back) will be pretty critical to the back end of the defense. But I’m not really expecting anyone will really fill Winfield’s shoes.
Coaching - Will PJ Fleck stop wasting timeouts?
Doesn’t seem likely. But in all honesty his timeout usage, especially in the first half, was frustrating.
Several times the team was in a short yardage situation (2nd and 2 from the 35 in the first quarter of the Badger game) and whatever he saw in the alignment or matchups caused him to sprint to the refs and call a timeout. The ensuing play was stuff.
There are some plays that are absolutely critical. There are some plays where you let your guys make a play. At one point earlier in the season he did the same sprint for a timeout because of something he didn’t like on the field. He did not get the time out and the Gophers scored a short-yardage touchdown. Sometimes you let your guys make a play (especially on 2nd down).
But to be honest, there is very little to complain about with this coaching staff. They aren’t perfect, but nobody is expected to me. Fleck did a fantastic jobs of pushing all the right buttons for most of the season.
There was a very slow start to the season but they made adjustments in the bye week and were a completely different team from week 4 on. During Big Ten play there was really only the 1st quarter of the Iowa game that this team wasn’t ready to play and execute at an elite level.
For me there is extreme confidence in the direction of this program. There are questions heading into next season but there are some very real strengths returning. This Gopher offense was one of the best in the country in 2019 and should be again in 2020.
Looking forward to the Outback Bowl and then it is going to be a very long offseason awaiting the 2020 season.