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Ranking Gopher football’s position groups heading into 2020

What position group is in the best shape?

Minnesota v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers are entering Year 4 of the P.J. Fleck era, putting his coaching staff’s recruits front and center as the team looks to a replace a number of starters from a season ago. There are a lot of position groups with questions to answer ahead of a potential 2020 season, and some units are looking better than others.

Here is how I would rank them (and feel free to disagree):

10. Linebacker

Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber have both graduated. Braelen Oliver suffered a lower body injury in spring practice that would sideline him for most, if not all, of a fall season. That leaves junior Mariano Sori-Marin as the most experienced linebacker on the roster, with Thomas Rush transitioning to a rush end role. This position group is the biggest question mark on the roster. Redshirt sophomore Josh Aune and redshirt freshmen James Gordon and Donald Willis will all likely see the field, and I have no doubt growing pains are in order.

9. Special Teams

Kicker Michael Lantz had a decent freshman year, despite missing a couple games due to injury. Punter Jacob Herbers has graduated, and the Gophers went all the way to Australia to find his replacement. Mark Crawford was a Signing Day surprise last year and I’ll be very curious to see if he was worth the trek. Hopefully someone can challenge Grant Ryerse for kickoff duty, because the kickoffs last season were... not great. Improvement needed.

8. Defensive Line

This is a position group with a lot of potential. There’s a very real possibility that this could be an upgrade from 2019, but that might be more of a prediction than an expectation. Carter Coughlin leaves a huge hole at rush end, and defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere and defensive tackle Sam Renner were both stalwarts up front. Nose tackle Micah Dew-Tready is the lone returning starter, but I don’t expect Keonte Schad to miss a beat as the three-technique tackle. Boye Mafe will take over at rush end and I think he has the talent and skill to be even better than Coughlin. I’m less bullish about Esezi Otomewo on the opposite side, but we’ll see what he does with a starting role. More than anything, there is a lot of raw talent on the defensive line, as the coaching staff has loaded up in the last couple recruiting classes. I’m excited to see what they can do.

7. Wide Receiver

I know this is where I am bound to get pushback, but hear me out. Rashod Bateman is the best receiver in the Big Ten, and one of the best in all of college football. But he and Chris Autman-Bell are the only known commodities in this group, and I don’t think it is fair to expect Autman-Bell to step in and replace the production of Tyler Johnson, one of the most prolific pass catchers in program history. Like everyone else, I trust the coaching staff’s track record of recruiting and developing elite talent at the receiver position, but faith only gets you so far. There are simply too many unknowns here for me to rank this group higher.

6. Offensive Line

It is tough to know where to rank this group, because the top six offensive linemen are outstanding. The starting five might be one of the best in the Big Ten. But beyond that, we don’t know much about the underclassmen. It’s especially difficult to evaluate this group because second-string offensive linemen very rarely see game action unless catastrophe strikes or the score is lopsided late. Smack dab in the middle seems about right.

5. Secondary

Antoine Winfield Jr. is a huge loss, but the Gophers return one of the best cornerback tandems in the Big Ten with Coney Durr and Benjamin St.-Juste. Terell Smith is a key reserve who has seen plenty of game action, and I am confident he’ll be ready to step in and contribute when needed. Jordan Howden was one of last year’s most improved players and I imagine he’ll take on an even bigger role in leading the defense now that he is the veteran at safety. Sophomore Tyler Nubin might have the highest ceiling of any defensive back on the roster, and he’ll have a chance to realize that potential as the heir apparent to Winfield. Justus Harris and Phillip Howard are two solid if unspectacular upperclassmen who have been battle-tested.

4. Quarterback

There isn’t much I can say about Tanner Morgan that wouldn’t be stating the obvious, but let’s not forget that his back-up initially beat him out for the starting spot ahead of the 2018 season. Zack Annexstad acquitted himself well in seven games as the starter that year, becoming the first true freshman walk-on to start a season opener at quarterback for a Power 5 program since Baker Mayfield. If Morgan were to be sidelined for whatever reason, I would feel comfortable with Annexstad under center. Redshirt freshmen Jacob Clark and Cole Kramer, who each got their feet wet in limited action last season, round out the quartet at quarterback.

3. Running Back

I feel great about this group. Mohamed Ibrahim is a stud and has already rushed for 1,000 yards in a season once for Minnesota. Bryce Williams redshirted last year but played well as a true freshman serving as a change-of-pace back alongside Ibrahim. We saw glimpses of redshirt freshmen Cam Wiley and Trey Potts in action last season, and both will be in competition for carries. Redshirt freshman Jason Williamson and true freshman Ky Thomas are the unknowns here, but both have high school rushing records under their belt.

2. Tight End

I don’t know that there is a more well-rounded position group on the roster. I mean, Bryce Witham appeared out of nowhere in the Outback Bowl to catch a touchdown pass and then make a one-handed grab on fourth down in the fourth quarter. And I would venture to guess most fans would have pegged him as the third or even fourth best tight end on the roster prior to that. Jake Paulson, Ko Kieft, and Witham are all elite blockers and were a huge asset to the offensive line season. Paulson has been the primary pass catcher of the bunch, but Brevyn Spann-Ford might be usurping that role if reports from inside the Athletes Village are to be believed.

1. Seth Green

I don’t think this requires an explanation.