It’s always tough when a coach steps down in the middle of the year, but Minnesota recovered nicely with wins over Illinois and Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl. Now with the interim tag off, coach Tracy Claeys will see what he is made of with a full season ahead of him in Minneapolis. Running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith should be one of the best backfield tandems in the Big Ten. Expect the duo to carry the offense and junior linebacker Cody Poock to anchor the defense.
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Previewing Minnesota’s Offense
With veteran quarterback Mitch Leidner, a fleet of running back talent and a retooled offensive line, the Minnesota Gophers are convinced they can contend for a Big Ten West title this season.
“Wide receiver — we should be awfully good,” coach Tracy Claeys says. “It’s hard for anybody to argue at tailback [that] we’re pretty good. I would say tight end-wise, we can be as good as anybody. If we get our offensive line straightened out, I think we’ll score a lot more points than we did this last year.”
The Gophers ranked next to last in the Big Ten in scoring, at 22.5 points per game. Claeys, the former defensive coordinator who took over as head coach when Jerry Kill retired last October, fired offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski. Claeys hired Jay Johnson from Louisiana-Lafayette as the new coordinator/quarterbacks coach, and tabbed former Wisconsin assistant Bart Miller to coach the offensive line. To further bolster the O-line, Claeys signed two well-regarded junior college players — right guard Vincent Calhoun and left tackle Garrison Wright.
All this was good news to Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, two running backs who combined for 1,379 yards as freshmen last year.
Previewing Minnesota’s Defense
Things won’t change much on defense under new coordinator Jay Sawvel, promoted from defensive backs coach. Minnesota had the nation’s 11th-best pass defense, but now the Gophers need to replace two outstanding cornerbacks, Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Fortunately for the Gophers, that’s a position where they’ve done some of their best recruiting. Senior Jalen Myrick and sophomore KiAnte Hardin could jump right into starting roles, and there is young talent in reserve.
The linebackers are strength of this defense, led by Jack Lynn and Cody Poock. The pass rush needs work, especially at defensive end. But the Gophers look vastly improved at defensive tackle this spring with Steven Richardson healthy and junior college transfer Merrick Jackson plugging holes.
“I think we are very comparable [on defense],” Claeys says. “We can run in the secondary again, and it will probably be our best speed overall at linebacker.”
Previewing Minnesota’s Specialists
The Gophers need to replace Peter Mortell, whose 44.0-yard punting average was the best in school history. Their best option is Ryan Santoso, who just happens to be the team’s best kicker after making 17-of-21 field goals last year and all 31 extra point attempts. Claeys doesn’t want one person to handle both jobs. Emmit Carpenter could be the placekicker this fall, with Santoso handling the punting and longer field goals. The team’s top kickoff returner (Myrick) and punt returner (Hardin) are both back.
Most of the skill players are back on offense. Leidner has recovered from foot surgery and is entering his third full year as a starter. His completion percentage improved from 51.5 percent to 59.5 percent the past two years. Claeys addressed the team’s two most glaring holes — offensive line and defensive tackle — with an infusion of junior college talent.
After going 8–5 the previous two years, the Gophers took a step back last season. They finished the regular season at 5–7 and qualified for a bowl game only because the NCAA didn’t have enough six-win teams. But Leidner led them over Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl, snapping the program’s seven-game bowl losing streak.
Minnesota is determined to use that as a springboard, especially with TCU, Michigan and Ohio State coming off the schedule. Added up, the Gophers should return to a bowl game for the fifth straight season.