From the moment P.J. Fleck took over the Minnesota Golden Gophers in 2017, one word has summed up his goals and vision for the program: Elite.
In 2019, Fleck's team was knocking on the door of being elite. The Gophers started the season 9-0, finished the campaign 10-2, and were very much in the Big Ten title and College Football Playoff conversation for the majority of the season.
Last season was just another step toward where P.J. Fleck wants his team to be. The Big Ten — and the rest of the college football nation for that matter — is sitting up and paying attention to what is happening in the Twin Cities. It's beginning to look like Fleck isn't just a high-energy, flash in the pan. He and his Minnesota program are here to stay, and now they are ready to take the next step toward being elite.
It all starts with spring football, which culminates with the Spring Game on April 4.
5 Storylines to Watch During Minnesota's Spring Practice
1. Tanner Morgan's command of the team
P.J. Fleck may be the face of the Minnesota program, but the 2020 Gophers are quarterback Tanner Morgan's team. He'll enter the spring as the solidified starter, coming off of a season where he tossed 30 touchdowns and only seven picks — all while completing 66 percent of his passes. He'll need to be a leader while also adapting to new leadership, as the Gophers hired a new offensive coordinator — Mike Sanford Jr. from Utah State — in the offseason. If the two can get on the same page early on, Minnesota shouldn't have any worries at quarterback.
2. Reconfiguring the backfield
Minnesota ranked sixth in the Big Ten last season in rushing at around 180 yards per game. Two players responsible for nearly 70 percent of the overall production on the ground — running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks — are gone. This doesn't mean the Golden Gophers' backfield cupboard is completely bare. Mohamed Ibrahim figures to take on a leading role as he's posted 1,764 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in two seasons, but Fleck has always preferred to spread the wealth. Bryce Williams, Cam Wiley, Treyson Potts, and Preston Jelen all got a handful of carries in 2019. The opportunity is there for more work so it will be interesting to see which back, including Ibrahim, impresses new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. the most this spring.
3. Offensive line's continued development
However the backfield pecking order shakes out, the ball carriers will have the luxury of running behind what could be one of the Big Ten's top offensive lines. Six players with significant starting experience return, including a trio of guys who received All-Big Ten Honorable Mention recognition last season — Curtis Dunlap Jr., Daniel Faalele, and Sam Schlueter. Blaise Andries and Conner Olson figure to have the inside track on the other two starting spots but simply having all of these quality pieces to work with is a good problem for Fleck and offensive line coach Brian Callahan to deal with this spring.
4. Receiver responsibilities
Rashod Bateman may have been the Big Ten's best receiver in 2019, but he benefitted greatly by playing opposite of Tyler Johnson. Defenses gave a lot of attention to Johnson — often to no avail. While that was happening, Bateman was scorching one-on-one coverage every week. Now Bateman is a marked man, and he'll need someone to play Robin to his Batman. Right now, the most likely candidate for that role is Chris Autman-Bell, who flashed signs of greatness in 2019. Look for the two to settle into their new roles during spring ball.
5. Rebuilding the defense
The biggest question marks for Minnesota heading into the 2020 campaign are on the defensive side of the ball. For starters, everybody's All-American — Antoine Winfield Jr. — is gone. His shoes will not be easily filled in the Gopher secondary, and finding his replacement will be at the top of the list of things to get done in the spring for defensive coordinator Joe Rossi.
After that, there is depth and talent returning at cornerback, but Rossi needs to find a solid mix of guys to replace all of the production that walked out the door in the front seven. You'll see a lot of players in the mix as Rossi tries to nail down his starters before the end of the spring session.
— 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 by Eric Miller, courtesy of gophersports.com)