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Minnesota Football: Breaking down the Gophers’ returning production for 2022

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A closer look at who will — and who won’t — be coming back for Minnesota in the fall

Guaranteed Rate Bowl - West Virginia v Minnesota Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Now that 2021 is behind us, we can start looking ahead to 2022, specifically who will be returning for another season of Minnesota Golden Gophers football this fall and who will be moving on to the next chapter of their lives. I’ve broken it down by position group, and next to each name is the percentage of snaps they played this season.

Quarterback

Leaving Production: Zack Annexstad (0.7% of snaps)
Returning Production: Tanner Morgan (92.4%) and Cole Kramer (6.4%)

Whether you like it or not, Tanner Morgan will be starting for the Gophers again next season.

Running Back

Leaving Production: Ky Thomas (34.9%) and Cam Wiley (1.9%)
Returning Production: Trey Potts (22.4%), Mar’Keise Irving (21.1%), Bryce Williams (12.1%), and Mohamed Ibrahim (5.5%)

With yesterday’s announcement that leading rusher Ky Thomas is transferring, there is more uncertainty at running back for the Gophers than I’m comfortable with. I recognize people believe this position group is loaded going into next season but Mohamed Ibrahim is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, Trey Potts is attempting a comeback from an undisclosed ailment but also needs to be cleared medically before he can see the field again, and Bryce Williams is working his way back from a lower leg injury. People may need to temper expectations for both Ibrahim and Potts going into next season. I’m pushing all my chips in on Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving, the only healthy scholarship running back on the roster at this very moment.

Wide Receiver

Leaving Production: Brady Boyd (19.6%)
Returning Production: Mike Brown-Stephens (72.7%), Chris Autman-Bell (60.4%), Daniel Jackson (57.5%), Dylan Wright (25.4%), Douglas Emilien (1.6%), and Jonathan Mann (0.2%)

The return of Chris Autman-Bell is huge for this receiving corps. Without him, the Gophers wouldn’t have a proven wide receiver on their roster for next season. With that said, he can’t do it alone. Others need to step up and contribute. The next most consistent contributor has been Mike Brown-Stephens with 23 receptions for 392 receiving yards and one touchdown. Fleck has singled out the “revolving door” at wide receiver as one of the reasons Minnesota struggled in the passing game this season, so it’s up to him and wide receivers coach Matt Simon to find consistency among the 11 scholarship wide receivers they’ll have on the roster next year.

Tight End

Leaving Production: Ko Kieft (66.5%)
Returning Production: Brevyn Spann-Ford (51.8%), Nick Kallerup (1.9%), and Jameson Geers (0.2%)

It’s safe to say Ko Kieft will be missed. Brevyn Spann-Ford steps into the role of elder statesman in the tight end room. If you’re looking for the heir apparent to Kieft’s critical role as chief battering ram, Wayzata walk-on Nick Kallerup seems like a good bet.

Offensive Line

Leaving Production: Sam Schlueter (98.8%), Conner Olson (98.8%), Daniel Faalele (94.4%), Blaise Andries (92.1%), and Curtis Dunlap (24.5%)
Returning Production: John Michael Schmitz (93.8%), Axel Ruschmeyer (29.1%), Nathan Boe (5.9%), J.J. Guedet (0.7%), Karter Shaw (0.7%), and Aireontae Ersery (0.3%)

The Gophers will go from having one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country to having one of the least experienced offensive lines in the country. Offensive line coach Brian Callahan has his work cut out for him next season. At least he has center John Michael Schmitz returning to anchor the line. J.J. Guedet and Aireontae Ersery are the favorites to start at right and left tackle, respectively. Axel Ruschmeyer is likely to start at one of the guard spots, with Nathan Boe and Utah State transfer Karter Shaw competing for the other.

Defensive Tackle

Leaving Production: Nyles Pinckney (60.4%), Micah Dew-Treadway (46.8%), Val Martin (19.7%), and Rashad Cheney (5.2%)
Returning Production: De’Angelo Carter (48.3%) and Logan Richter (1.1%)

The defensive line is the biggest question mark on defense for the Gophers next season. Minnesota relied on a three-man rotation at defensive tackle down the stretch, and De’Angelo Carter is the only member of the rotation who is coming back. Logan Richter only saw action in one game this season, so this is a position at which the Gophers will be woefully inexperienced next year, barring an addition from the transfer portal. Redshirt freshman Gage Keys and three true freshmen are the reinforcements behind Carter and Richter.

Defensive End

Leaving Production: Esezi Otomewo (66.6%), Boye Mafe (61.6%), and M.J. Anderson (23.2%)
Returning Production: Thomas Rush (53.3%), Jah Joyner (5.2%), Jalen Logan-Redding (3.7%), and Danny Striggow (2.5%)

Minnesota will also be inexperienced at defensive end next season, with three members of their four-man rotation walking out the door. Thomas Rush is your likely starter at rush end, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, he is no Boye Mafe. M.J. Anderson was supposed to be the heir apparent to Esezi Otomewo at defensive end but opted to transfer instead. The Gophers have nothing but inexperienced underclassmen behind Rush, including three redshirt freshmen, a true freshman, and a pair of incoming freshmen. I would not be surprised if Fleck looks to the transfer portal for a defensive end or a defensive tackle — or both.

Linebacker

Leaving Production: Jack Gibbens (90%) and James Gordon (2.7%)
Returning Production: Mariano Sori-Marin (80.8%), Braelen Oliver (36.1%), Donald Willis (10.9%), Jaqwondis Burns (5.1%), and Cody Lindenberg (1.1%)

Jack Gibbens was an impact player for the Gophers after transferring from Abilene Christian, but I think Minnesota is in good shape at linebacker for next season. Mariano Sori-Marin took a big step forward this season after being much maligned in 2020 and his return for 2022 is a big boost for this defense. You can probably pencil in him and Braelen Oliver as your starters next season, with Donald Willis and Cody Lindenberg serving as their primary back-ups. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi believes the sky is the limit for Lindenberg, who missed most of this season due to injury but is expected to be at full strength by fall camp.

Slot Cornerback

Leaving Production: Justus Harris (56.4%) and Bishop McDonald (6.5%)
Returning Production: None

Justus Harris has quietly been a solid contributor at slot cornerback the last two seasons. The Gophers may have already found his replacement for next season in the transfer portal with the addition of Western Kentucky cornerback Beanie Bishop, who started at nickel back for the Hilltoppers this season. Expect to see Bishop competing for the starting spot with redshirt junior Solomon Brown and redshirt freshman Steven Ortiz.

Cornerback

Leaving Production: Coney Durr (92.5%) and Phillip Howard (21.5%)
Returning Production: Justin Walley (60.7%) and Terell Smith (36.3%)

After playing in 55 games for Minnesota over the last six seasons, Coney Durr has played his final game in maroon and gold. Those are big shoes to fill, and Abilene Christian cornerback Ryan Stapp is likely to be the one stepping into them. Justin Walley likely has the other starting spot locked down for the foreseeable future after making a name for himself as a true freshman, starting the final six games of the season. It remains to be seen what the future holds for Terell Smith, the previous owner of that starting cornerback spot. This was supposed to be the year for Smith to put it all together, but his struggles as a starter opened the door for Walley.

Safety

Leaving Production: Calvin Swenson (3.7%)
Returning Production: Jordan Howden (85.4%), Tyler Nubin (84.2%), and Michael Dixon (25.3%)

Though depth is a concern, the back end of the Gophers’ defense will have a pair of veterans in Jordan Howden and Tyler Nubin, both of whom are multi-year starters at this point. Dixon has acquitted himself well when he has been called upon, and behind him will be redshirt freshman Darius Green and true freshman Coleman Bryson.