The Minnesota Golden Gophers wrapped up the 2021 campaign with a 9-4 record, which included an 18-6 win over West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. It was a relatively successful season for head coach P.J. Fleck and his staff, and all signs point to continued improvement in 2022.
Veteran leadership at quarterback combined with plenty of key experience up and down the roster have fans in the Twin Cities excited for what this Gopher team could do in the upcoming season. Fleck will use the spring session to fine-tune what looks like what could be one of the more formidable squads in the Big Ten West.
Related: Spring 2022 Big Ten Power Rankings
5 Storylines to Watch During Minnesota's Spring Practice
1. The return of Kirk Ciarrocca
After spending two seasons away from Minnesota — at Penn State in 2020 and West Virginia in 2021 — Ciarrocca returns to the Golden Gophers as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. This is notable because he held the same position for Minnesota in 2019. That year, the Gophers had one of the most productive and explosive offensives in the Big Ten, with Tanner Morgan tossing 30 touchdown passes and accumulating 3,253 passing yards — far and away his most productive season. Fleck would love to see his offensive coordinator and quarterback find that magic again, and it all starts with the chemistry they can rebuild in the spring.
2. The health of the running backs
No team in the country suffered as many injuries at running back as Minnesota did in 2021. Mohamed Ibrahim went down in the season-opener to Ohio State with an Achilles injury after looking like the best player on the field for most of the game. The Gophers would also lose Trey Potts and Bryce Williams to season-ending injuries throughout the year. All three are back, and all three have star potential. It will be interesting to see who looks fully rehabilitated and who leads the team in carries during the spring.
3. Can Chris Autman-Bell emerge as a star?
Autman-Bell returns for a sixth season of eligibility after leading the Gophers in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in 2021. He'll be expected to repeat and exceed that production, and the offense should be conducive to him doing so. The targets will be there, it's just a matter of what he does with them. Minnesota needs him to emerge as one of the top wideouts in the conference if the Gophers want to get to the Big Ten Championship Game. That work starts in the spring.
4. Portal impact on the offensive line
Getting production from the transfer portal is an absolute must in modern college football. Fleck looks to have put his best foot forward in terms of getting offensive line talent from the portal. It was sorely needed since four starters have to be replaced, including NFL Scouting Combine participants Daniel Faalele and Blaise Andries. As for the replacements, Fleck was able to lure former Michigan starter Chuck Filiaga away from Ann Arbor and also got in-state product Quinn Carroll to leave Notre Dame and come home to the Twin Cities. Both are probably front-runners for one of the many open spots up front.
5. Rebuilding the defensive line
Fleck and the coaching staff also had to hit the portal to address the other side of the line of scrimmage with three starters, including NFL draft prospect Boye Mafe, and several other key contributors departing. Last season, defensive linemen accounted for 21.5 of the Gophers' 25 sacks. Thomas Rush was second on the team with five sacks (Mafe led with 7.0), and the only other linemen who recorded a sack returning are Trill Carter and Jah Joyner (combined for 2.0). Graduate transfers Darnell Jefferies (Clemson) and Lorenza Surgers (Vanderbilt) are new to campus, and their experience could pay off. However it comes together, there's plenty of pressure on the defense after finishing second in the Big Ten in all four major categories in 2021.
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— 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.