The calendar just hit July and we are still 8+ weeks away from any brown, pigskin ball being kicked around. But I am excited for football. Specifically Gopher Football.
I have two primary objectives with this post. First, it is OK to be excited about Gopher football in 2019. I know, I know that as a Minnesota sports fan we are supposed to be conditioned to believe that we can never have nice things. But there are actual reasons to be excited about Gopher football in 2019.
Will it be 12-1 with a trip to Pasadena (or better)? Not likely, but there is a lot of room for a great season between 0-13 and 13-0. This is going to be a good year and you have my permission to get excited. Here’s why.
We return basically the entire offense
For the first time since 2016 the Gophers are going to be returning a starter at quarterback. In fact Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan split starts last year and we are returning two quarterbacks with experience. At least one of these guys is going to have to take some steps forward from their freshman seasons but there is at least a little bit of room for optimism under center.
Then take into account that they return well over 90% of their carries and receptions from last year. The skill positions for the Gophers returns nearly fully intact. Offensive line is mostly returning as well with basically just LT as the only question mark in the entire offense. This kind of continuity from one season to the next really allows for the offense to become more complex and potent.
The schedule is...favorable
The 2019 schedule has always been one to look forward to. The non-conference portion of the schedule appears to be soft. The Gophers avoid the favorites in the Big Ten East with a trip to Rutgers before facing Maryland and Penn State at home. Then they get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home. Their toughest games of the year might be either the trip to Purdue or the trip to Iowa.
Nothing is “easy” in the Big Ten and it is not like the Gophers are going to be favorite in all 13 games. But this is about as ideal of a schedule as you could want. Does a more favorable schedule translate to a better team? No, but it may translate to more wins.
We have some legit NFL caliber players, on both sides of the ball
Depending on where you look, Tyler Johnson and Carter Coughlin are potentially going to be drafted in the first two or three rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft. Certainly they will be in consideration for first team All-Big Ten. And then there are underclassmen who also project to eventually be drafted. Daniel Falaale, Curtis Dunlap and Rashad Bateman all come to mind as very talented players who may find their way on to NFL rosters down the road. Antoine Winfield Jr, Thomas Barber and Rodney Smith could find themselves in that territory too with the right seasons and good health ahead of them.
2018 freshmen are now 2019 sophomores
There were quite a few freshmen last year who contributed and did well enough to provide some sort of optimism as they make the jump from their FR to SO years.
I touched on the quarterbacks, both played last year as freshmen and now have significantly more experience and confidence as sophomores. But so much more than that.
- Mohamed Ibrahim led the Gophers in rushing with over 1,100 yards last year.
- Rashod Bateman showed that he has NFL talent on his way to 700 yards and 8 TDs as a true freshman.
- Chris Autman-Bell and Demitrius Douglas finished 3rd and 4th in receptions as freshmen.
- Terell Smith started 8 games at corner and looks to be an integral part of the secondary.
- Blaise Andries started all 13 games along the offensive line and Falaale started 8 (not to mention Curtis Dunlap who is technically a rFR who played in the minimum 4, starting the bowl game).
- Jamaal Teague and Esezi Otomewo played quite a bit along the defensive line and will be key contributors.
So many freshman played and played meaningful minutes last year, having them in their second years will be fun to watch in 2019.
The coordinators give me hope
Kirk Ciarrocca is a known commodity on the offensive side of the ball and he very nearly took a new job in the offseason. But his creative offensive mind has a lot of weapons returning (see point 1) for his third season as the Gopher’s OC. From year 1 to year 2 his offense already increased by about 70 yards per game and nearly 7 points per game. The offense should very few excuses for not improving, yet again, in year three.
Defensively we saw an immediate impact when Joe Rossi was named the interim defensive coordinator following the team’s loss at Illinois. This side of the ball was noticably different and the catalyst for the team finishing 3-1 with wins over Wisconsin and Georgia Tech while Rossi was in charge of the defense. Now as the full time defensive coordinator and he has a full offseason to begin teaching the brand of defense he wants to employ.
Having coordinators you trust is important to the success of a season, I see reason to be excited about these two in these important roles.
It is not prediction time for the season quite yet. But as we sit on July 1st, I see no reason why we cannot be excited about what is coming this fall.