I am very clearly on record that I have high expectations for this upcoming Gopher football season. I’ve stated it here, I’ve stated it there, I’ll state it anywhere. Based on the talent coming back at very key positions, I don’t think it is an extreme take to predict that this team is going to be good.
But what will it take for this team to be ELITE?
Looking back at the 2019 season it is easy to identify a number of players who took significant steps forward from 2018. Those guys outperformed expectations in a way that really elevated the entire team in unexpected ways. Offensively Tanner Morgan went from a guy who won a few games after replacing Zack Annexstad in the back half of 2018, to being an All-Big Ten caliber quarterback who garnered attention on a few national awards. Nobody saw his 2019 production coming. Antione Winfield Jr., on the defensive side of the ball, went from very good but often injured to an All-American, 2nd round draft pick.
Those two were not the only ones who improved from one year to the next, but their respective improvement elevated their units dramatically. Chris Williamson, Sam Renner, Kamal Martin, Daniel Faalele, Demetrius Douglas and others had very good seasons that contributed to the overall 2019 eliteness. It takes everyone in the ultimate team game.
So as we sit in 2021 and GopherNation has high expectations for the season, who are guys who really need to take big step forward for this team to achieve similar success to 2019?
I’m going to give you one name on each side of the ball. These guys to not have to go from being “ok” to All-Americans. But these are two guys who, if they take dramatic steps forward, will catapult this team from good to great.
WR - Dylan Wright
At this point we know exactly what we are going to get from Morgan, Mohamed Ibrahim and the offensive line. One could argue that Chris Autman-Bell going from good to one of the best in the Big Ten is who we should be talking about here. I could listen to that argument. But I’m going to assume Autman-Bell is going to be good.
What will make this offense truly one of the most dangerous in the country is having a 2nd dangerous wideout. And I’m looking at you, Dylan Wright.
I have confidence in CAB and I have confidence that Daniel Jackson is going to do well in the slot. But that other wideout is going to be crucial.
Wright comes to the Gophers after 2 years at Texas A&M. He has the pedigree of being a top-100 rated high school recruit. He has the size, speed and hands. He is also coming into a program with a coaching staff that has had tremendous success coaching wide receivers.
Is it out of the question that CAB and Wright turn into a similar version of Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman? I don’t think it is. Even if they are not drafted in the first 3 rounds, I don’t think it is unreasonable that at the end of 2021 they are both named to an All-Big Ten team. If Wright is able to take what he learned throughout the spring, grab hold of that opposite starting spot and begin dominating opposing corners...this offense becomes as good as any in the country.
An All-American caliber running back, a great offensive line, an experience and smart quarterback to go with two very good receivers? Wright is the key here.
Honorable Mention: Brevyn Span-Ford
A dynamic, pass-catching tight end would be an unusual wrinkle that the Gopher offense hasn’t had since Maxx Williams. A breakout year for Span-Ford would do wonders for this offense too. I just don’t think we incorporate TE in a way that Span-Ford will be featured enough.
CB - Terell Smith
The defense has more holes than the offense. One could really go a number of different directions here. Boye Mafe turning into a feared pass-rusher would be huge. Anybody showing dramatic improvement at linebacker is needed. As mentioned, it takes everyone. I expect measured improvement from linebacker and most along the defensive line. Maybe not massive breakouts, but just improved play is going to go a LONG ways toward the defense being a much more reliable unit.
For me there is quite a bit of concern over the #2 corner spot and the depth behind it.
The starting spot belongs to Smith. You may recall Smith being rather good as he started 9 games as a true freshman in 2018. But the excitement of Smith’s potential faded as he struggled in 2019 and much of 2020.
But a strong spring and now being one of the more experienced corners on the roster, there is hope that 2021 is the year Smith rebounds. If Smith can turn this season into one where he learns how to use his great size and speed to make plays in the secondary, Big Ten offenses are not going to like having to face he and Coney Durr.
Back in 2019 the Gopher defense was fortunate that Benjamin St.-Juste turned into a great corner opposite Durr. Smith needs to be that guy this year. He has a 6’2” body and has track speed...Smith has the tools and experience to be elite.
Honorable Mention: De’Angelo Carter
The Gopher defense was 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed and they were giving up 6.3 yards per attempted rush. There are a lot of names at DT who will be solid as part of the rotation. Carter is one name that has a chance to really establish himself as a key defensive lineman. Him having a breakout season would help the interior rush defense AND pass rush.