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Minnesota Football: 2017 Golden Gophers Preview and Prediction

Shannon Brooks, Minnesota Football

Shannon Brooks, Minnesota Football

The P.J. Fleck era in Minnesota is ready to begin and while the future may look bright in Minneapolis, some growing pains should be expected this fall. After all, the Golden Gophers went 9-4 and won the Holiday Bowl last season. Fleck does inherit a strong running back tandem, but his quarterback will be unproven and the defense returns just four starters. A bowl bid is certainly attainable, but don’t expect much more from Fleck just yet.

Previewing Minnesota Football’s Offense for 2017

Head coach P.J. Fleck and his staff aren’t the only new faces in Minnesota, as the Gophers have to replace longtime quarterback Mitch Leidner, leading wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky and three offensive linemen with starting experience heading into 2017. It’s a good thing standout running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks return to shoulder the bulk of the offensive workload. Smith was second in the Big Ten with 16 rushing touchdowns in 2016, and Brooks, who missed a few games last season, has a knack for breaking off big runs. Both averaged 4.7 or more yards per carry last season.

“They showed why... they are really good backs and how they can continue to become elite,” Fleck says. “They make some runs, too, that wow.”

At quarterback, Conor Rhoda (one career start) and Demry Croft (none) are the two frontrunners to win the job. Both have attempted 17 career passes heading into ’17. Fleck and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kirk Ciarrocca have each said that a starter might not be named until mid-August.

The receivers haven’t caught a lot of passes, but they figure to benefit from the tutelage of position coach Matt Simon and Fleck, a former college and pro wideout. Rashad Still is the most productive returning receiver, but he had only 18 receptions in 2016.

Previewing Minnesota Football’s Defense for 2017

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The defense will be led by its deep linebacking corps, most notably Jonathan Celestin in the middle. He had 80 tackles in 2016 and has paid multiple visits to Fleck’s office to find out how he can be a better leader.

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Defensive tackle Steven Richardson, at 6'0", 300 pounds, will work to keep Celestin free to roam while also wreaking havoc himself. He had a team-high 11 tackles for a loss as well as 7.0 sacks in 2016.

Without much depth along the defensive line, new defensive coordinator Robb Smith — who was at Arkansas last year — will need to be flexible and transition from his preferred 4-3 to a modified 3-4 to cover up the lack of size on the line.

Some impact sophomores are expected to be Carter Coughlin and Tai’yon Devers at rush end and Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber at linebacker.

Fleck is enamored with sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr., whose dad had a long NFL career. Winfield will provide instincts that can be invaluable at safety or cornerback.

Previewing Minnesota Football’s Specialists for 2017

Emmit Carpenter won Big Ten Kicker of the Year for making 92 percent of his attempts (22-of-24) in 2016. He was 10-of-10 from 40 yards and beyond. Punter Ryan Santoso had a 40.9-yard average, and 38 percent of his punts ended up inside the 20-yard line. It will be an open competition to see who wins the returner duties after burner Jalen Myrick left for the NFL.

Final Analysis

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The Gophers went 9–4 and beat Washington State 17–12 in the Holiday Bowl last season, but this year’s squad could take a step back. Fleck’s team will face a harder schedule, as Michigan essentially replaces Rutgers on the slate.

There’s also uncertainty with a lack of experience at quarterback and a lack of depth along the offensive and defensive lines as well as in the secondary. If they can shore up those questions and can get past Oregon State in Corvallis on Sept. 9, a 5–0 mark is attainable heading into the home game against Michigan State on Oct. 14.

Fleck has a track record for taking teams to unforeseeable heights. He took Western Michigan from 1–11 in 2013 to back-to-back 8–5 campaigns before a breakthrough to 13–1 and a Cotton Bowl berth against Wisconsin in 2016.

National Ranking: 50

Big Ten West Prediction: 5