The time is now for P.J. Fleck's squad to compete for a Big Ten West title
The trajectory of Minnesota Golden Gopher football under P.J. Fleck is on the uptick. The Gophers wrapped up the 2018 campaign with a win in the Quick Lane Bowl over Georgia Tech to finish with a winning record (7-6).
We're now approaching the third season of the Fleck tenure. The system is installed. The culture is changed. The final step in the process is getting the desired results.
The 2019 Gophers have the pieces in place to make a run at the Big Ten West title. It won't be easy, and there's plenty of work to be done. It all starts with the effort and improvement the team shows during the spring football session.
5 Storylines to Watch during Minnesota's Spring Practice
1. The backs are back!
The heart and soul of this Minnesota team will be the pair of elite running backs coming off of injuries. When healthy, you won't find a better duo than Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks anywhere in the Big Ten. All eyes will be on the two this spring to see how far they are in their recoveries from knee surgery. If one or both are not 100 percent, it leaves to door open for Mohamed Ibrahim to lock down the role he excelled in last season. If all three are healthy, the Gopher rushing attack will be lethal.
2. The return of Antoine Winfield Jr.
This defense lost some significant talent from last season, so getting one of the Big Ten's best defensive players back cannot be overstated. Fans will want to keep an eye on his health, but also take note of the boost he gives the rest of the team when he's on the field. If the Gophers are going to contend for the Big Ten West, you could make the argument that Winfield is the most important player on the roster in terms of achieving that goal.
3. New coaches meshing with players
Fleck brought in a handful of new assistants from other programs around the country. Chemistry is going to be huge, especially with a Gopher squad that returns 37 of 44 players from last season's two-deep. This will be a case of coaches having to adapt to a culture that is already in place, as opposed to the other way around — which is the norm. Communication will be key.
4. Replacing a legendary kicker
There's no such thing as "just a kicker," especially when you are talking about Emmit Carpenter — the greatest kicker in Minnesota history. The Gophers will be involved in some close games in what is expected to be a tight division. They'll need security at the kicking position to be able to come out on the positive end of those battles this fall. There will be an open competition for the role.
5. What happens at quarterback?
Two talented sophomores are currently atop the quarterback depth chart for Fleck. Last season, Zack Annexstad won the job in the fall. When he went down with an injury, Tanner Morgan stepped in and excelled in the role. It appears the job is Annexstad's to start the year. He was awarded a scholarship in January and has the full support of Fleck and the staff. That said, Morgan's presence could ultimately shorten Annexstad's leash if there are any struggles.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! SBNation and Bleacher Report. He is a three-time FWAA writing contest award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
(Top photo courtesy of @GopherFootball)