It is week 1 of the college football season and the Gophers are in a position to compete for a Big Ten West title. Heading into PJ Fleck’s 6th season, there are a number of reasons to be excited about the depth and talent of this team.
The return of a key core of offensive skill players is significant. Tanner Morgan entering his 6th season with the program and having 39 starts under his belt is good news for the team. Chris Autman-Bell, John Michael Schmitz and Mohamed Ibrahim returning are good for the offense.
There is excitement about the return of Kirk Ciarrocca at offensive coordinator may be the best news of the offseason for the offense.
Defensively there is a lot of stability in the defensive backfield and at linebacker.
Overall there is a good level of talent all over the field, a lot of potential on the offense and Gopher fans have reason to be optimistic for this 2022 season. But there are areas of concern, holes from guys who are gone and questions to be answered if this team is going to find a way to win the Big Ten West and maybe get themselves an invitation to Pasadena.
Here are the key questions that have to be answered.
1 - How good will the offensive line be?
This is absolutely key for the offense. So many good skill position players return and there is an assumption that the overall offense will be better with the return of Ciarrocca. As mentioned, Morgan has 39 starts and is an unquestioned leader of this offense. Ibrahim is a former Big Ten Running Back of the Year. All of our top receivers return.
BUT we lost 4/5 of what was a very good offensive line. This is potentially a problem.
To alleviate this problem, 2 key transfers are coming in and there is optimism that this staff has been developing guys all along.
But we just don’t know how good this line is going to be. If the OL struggles to protect Morgan and open holes for the backs, the offense may be lacking. On the other hand, if this unit comes together...this offense is going to be a top 4 offense in the Big Ten.
2 - Who steps up along the defensive line?
The other side of the ball lost a lot along the line as well. Along the OL, we basically know the 5 or 6 names we will see on the field, their question is around can they play well together.
Defensively, there are a lot of names who will getting playing time. The question here is, who among those names is going to step up, seize the opportunity and become playmakers for Joe Rossi’s defense.
Could it be Deven Eastern? Or Austin Booker, or Danny Striggow? Will we get more production out of Thomas Rush and Trill Carter? Jalen Logan-Redding could be solid, Kyler Baugh could be consistently reliable as well. We just don’t know.
There are about 9 names who are going to see playing time. Who steps up and makes their number one that is frequently called out for making plays is a mystery.
How this question is answered will likely impact the defense more than anything else.
3 - Will special teams be better?
We have not spent much time covering special teams as we approach the season, but this is a pretty significant question that needs to be answered if this team is going to win the West.
Punting needs to be slightly better. Kicking needs to be slightly better. The return game needs to be better. If this unit can improve, maybe even be a deciding factor at some point in the season, that will help tremendously.
It just all need to be better. Can this unit can hit a game-winning FG or swap field position with a better return game? It very well could make the difference between finishing 2nd in the West and winning it.
4 - What will we get from Terell Smith?
I think Smith is absolutely key to this defense. Will they be fine if he struggles and ends up playing more of a reserve role? Yes, 3⁄4 of the starting defensive backfield is something I’m very confident in.
But what if Smith realizes his potential, what is he is able to use his combination of size and speed to become a dominant corner? That makes the backend of this defense extremetly good.
5 - Is Kirk Ciarrocca going to be the difference offensively?
I intentionally placed this question as the 5th one, mostly because I think it will be answered in a way that is good for the Gophers in 2022. But offensive coordinator is often the scapegoat when offenses struggle or individual plays don’t work out. And let’s be honest, there were plenty of times that people complained about Ciarrocca when he was calling plays in 2017, 18 and even 19.
And we call agree that Mike Sanford was not successful at calling a balanced game that got the most out of its offense.
But there may still be some issues with Ciarrocca this year, there is no guarantee that he steps in and instantly is directing a potent and dangerous offense.
I do believe that he is going to be very good for Tanner Morgan. I do believe that this offense will have more balance to it. And I believe that this offense will make adjustments when necessary to deviate from the original gameplan.
This question may be more about expectations and my fear that Gopher fans will be expecting a repeat of the 2019 offense. This offense should be very good, it could be great. But it all has to come together.
Is Dylan Wright going to be a more consistent and reliable receiver? If this offense were to get 2 receivers that are productive? Things really start to open up.
Will Mariano Sori-Marin be able to lead the linebackers from the Mike linebacker spot? He was very good last year alongside Jack Gibbens, now he’s the guy.
There you have it, the key questions to winning the West. Thursday is when we begin to see how these will be answered.