Like many other college football teams last fall, the Minnesota Golden Gophers struggled through their pandemic-shortened campaign, both on the field and off of it. A year after going 11-2 and finishing the season ranked 10th in the final AP poll, P.J. Fleck's Gophers went just 3-4 in the fall.
Minnesota certainly felt the impact of COVID-19 as not only were two games canceled because of an outbreak within the program the effects also impacted the roster beyond those contests. Yet despite all the adversity, the Gophers beat Nebraska on the road in its first game back even though they were missing 33 players.
While it may not have showed in the win-loss column, Fleck said in his pre-spring press conference that he believes his team learned a lot from everything the players dealt with last year and that the experience gained should pay off. Minnesota returns 16 starters with only two key contributors departing and several new players expected to step in right away.
Now in his fifth season at the helm, Fleck said this is the most experienced team he has had during his tenure. That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of things to work on during the spring, however, as last year's losing record shows. Among the priorities is putting all of the pieces together on offense and figuring out what went wrong on defense in 2020.
5 Storylines to Watch During Minnesota's Spring Practices
1. Setting up Tanner Morgan for success
A year after rewriting the school record books, Morgan saw his production decline in 2020. While the extenuating circumstances certainly can't be ignored, the bottom line is that Morgan didn't perform nearly as well as he did in 2019. In seven games he averaged fewer than 200 passing yards per game with nearly as many interceptions (five) as touchdowns (seven). Having started the last 26 games (18-8 record), Morgan's spot atop the depth chart appears secure but a strong showing in the spring would only serve as a confidence booster for him and the Gophers as a whole. Expect Zack Annexstad, who started seven games his freshman season (2018), Cole Kramer, and Jacob Clark also to get some opportunities at quarterback as P.J. Fleck and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford Jr. need to figure out the options behind Morgan.
2. Develop the receiving corps
Part of the reason for Morgan's declining passing numbers can be attributed to Rashod Bateman, the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year in 2019, only playing in five games last fall before opting out. He's now preparing for the NFL draft so a new No. 1 target will need to step up. Chris Autman-Bell, second to Bateman in catches (22) and receiving yards (430) last season, will probably take over as the primary target, but he will need help. Three other wideouts (Daniel Jackson, Clay Geary, Mike Brown-Stephens) who caught a pass last season are back and Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright also has been added to the mix. Two members of this year's recruiting class — Lemeke Brockington and Brady Boyd — enrolled early and will be taking part in the spring as well. Fleck said in his pre-spring press conference that wide receiver is one of the more youthful and inexperienced positions on his current roster, but it's also the fastest group he's had in his five years at Minnesota. This spring will be finding out what each brings to the table, besides speed.
3. Putting the offensive line puzzle together
One of the bright spots to Minnesota's 2020 season was running back Mohamed Ibrahim. The Big Ten Running Back of the Year and first-team All-Big Ten selection led the conference in rushing (1,076 yards) and finished second nationally in rushing yards per game (153.7). He's back and so is the entire starting offensive line — left tackle Blaise Andries, right tackle Sam Schlueter, right guard Conner Olson, left guard Axel Ruschmeyer, and center John Michael Schmitz. However, the Golden Gophers also are welcoming back right guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. and right tackle Daniel Faalele, starters in 2019 who earned All-Big Ten Honorable Mention recognition that season but didn't play last fall. Dunlap tore his Achilles while Faalele opted out. There are two other linemen (Nathan Boe, Aireontae Ersery) with starting experience on the roster and Karter Shaw, a transfer for Utah State, is expected to take part in spring practice. So the good news for offensive line coach/run game coordinator Brian Callahan is that he doesn't lack for options. Now it's just a matter of finding which guy fits where and beginning the process of identifying his starting five.
4. Fixing the defense
The decreased offensive production by the Gophers was compounded by their struggles on defense. Minnesota went from third in the Big Ten in total defense in 2019 to 10th last fall, giving up more than 100 yards per game in the process. The Gophers also went from giving up about five yards per play to seven. Stopping the run in particular (207.1 ypg, 16 TDs) was a problem for defensive coordinator Joseph Rossi's unit. Seven starters return but cornerback Benjamin St-Juste will be missed. Even though pretty much everyone else is back from last year's defense, expect changes throughout. Rossi has several new faces to integrate, including transfers Nyles Pinckney (Clemson) and Val Martin (NC State) along the defensive line, as well as linebacker Jack Gibbens (Abilene Christian). Linebacker Braelon Oliver, who recorded 22 tackles in 2019, also returns after missing all of last season because of injury. So similar to the offensive line, Rossi will have plenty of candidates competing for their spot on the depth chart in hopes of playing a key part in the Gophers' defensive rebound.
5. Special teams
Competition will be the theme for special teams as well as Fleck said he's looking for more consistency from this group. Minnesota fared much better in coverage on kickoffs and punts last year than when it came to returning them, but Fleck and special teams coordinator Rob Wenger are hoping that a more experienced roster will result in better depth for these units. There will be competition at both kicker and punter, especially considering the Gophers went 4-for-6 for the former last season and finished last in the Big Ten in the latter. Punter Mark Crawford and kicker Brock Walker are the only two listed on the spring roster who handed either role last season, but ULM transfer Daniel Sparks is taking part in practice and could complete for either or both positions. Additionally, Kent State transfer Matthew Trickett, who went 29-for-34 on field goals in 2019, is expected to arrive in the summer. Like several other positions for Minnesota, kicker and punter may not be settled until fall camp.
(Top photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletics)