Minnesota Golden Gophers head football coach P.J. Fleck will make the pilgrimage to Indianapolis on Thursday for the Big Ten Media Days, where he and a handful of players — Tanner Morgan, Mohamed Ibrahim, and Boye Mafe — will face questions from the media.
And there are certainly many questions for Fleck ahead of the 2021 season.
Which season was the fluke: 2019 or 2020?
The Gophers were riding high after the 2019 season, having finished their first 11-win season in 116 years after falling short of securing the program’s first trip to the Big Ten Championship. They knew they would have to replace seven starters on defense for 2020, including three NFL Draft picks, but no one could have anticipated the struggles Minnesota would have on and off the field. It was a turbulent year in the Twin Cities and around the country for a variety of reasons, and the impact that COVID-19 had on the program has been well documented.
But the fact of the matter is that Minnesota finished the season 3-4, a far cry from the elevated expectations that Fleck invited after 2019. Many of his critics seized on his struggles in 2020 as evidence that he is a flash in the pan, and more than a few long-suffering Gopher fans were kicking themselves for believing 2019 was a turning point for the program.
Now that college football has returned to some semblance of normalcy and the end of the pandemic is hopefully on the horizon, Fleck has a chance to right the ship.
Will experience translate to improvement for the Gophers’ defense?
Minnesota finished last year ranked 102nd in the country in rushing defense (207.1 rushing yards allowed per game) and 70th in scoring defense (30.14 points allowed per game). They’re going to have to do a lot better this fall if the Gophers plan to be contenders in the Big Ten West.
The good news — or bad news, depending on your perspective — is that all but one defensive starter from last season returns, with cornerback Benjamin St.-Juste the lone departure. Fleck and defensive coordinator Joe Rossi are banking on last season’s struggles serving as a baptism by fire for many of the returners, especially the linebackers, but there are plenty of skeptics questioning whether Minnesota has the defensive talent to compete in the Big Ten.
Will the Gophers’ passing attack be as lethal without Rashod Bateman?
Quarterback Tanner Morgan had an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver in 2019, with Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman becoming the first receivers from the same team to be named First-Team All-Big Ten in the same season. Two years later, both are gone to the NFL. Bateman was around for five games last season but only recorded 36 receptions for 472 receiving yards and two touchdowns before opting out of the final two games.
So who steps up now? Chris Autman-Bell is the undisputed leader of the wide receiver corps, though there is skepticism that he can produce to the level of a Johnson or a Bateman. Daniel Jackson showed flashes of promise as a true freshman last season. With Morgan back, Mohamed Ibrahim returning after he being named Big Ten Running Back of the Year, and Minnesota boasting one of the most experienced offensive lines the country, there are few question marks on the offensive side of the ball for the Gophers. But wide receiver is a big one.
This will also be Year 2 under offensive co-coordinators Mike Sanford Jr. and Matt Simon. After establishing one of the best ground games in the country a year ago, the Gophers’ offense will need to be more balanced this fall to take some of the pressure off Ibrahim.
Will special teams be less of a liability?
Minnesota was not a total disaster on special teams last season. Once kickoff specialist Dragan Kesich was finally cleared to play, the Gophers ended up ranked 2nd nationally in kickoff return defense, limiting opponents to 13.64 yards per kickoff return.
But that’s about it. Minnesota struggled punting the ball while true freshman Mark Crawford was sidelined for the first two games. Even when he was cleared to play, Crawford only averaged 37.8 yards on 17 punts, though he did manage to drop seven of those punts inside the 20-yard line.
Placekicker was a disaster. Sophomore Michael Lantz missed the start of the season due to COVID and was 6-of-7 on PATs in three games before being sidelined again due to back surgery. Redshirt sophomore Brock Walker was limited due to his recovery from sports hernia surgery and finished the season 2-of-3 on field goals and 12-of-14 on PATs. Walk-on Anders Gelecinskyj, a redshirt senior, was the placekicker by season’s end, making 5-of-5 PATs and 2-of-3 field goals.
Lantz and Gelecinskyj are both gone, leaving Walker to complete with Temple transfer Will Mobley and Kent State transfer Matthew Trickett for the starting kicker spot.
The Gophers’ return game was also a non-factor last season. Minnesota ranked 110th nationally in kickoff return average (17.33 yards per return) and 123rd in punt return average (0.8 yards per return). A more explosive return game might better set up the offense for success.