After his Gophers won three of their final four games last year, coach P.J. Fleck welcomed heightened expectations entering his third season at Minnesota.
"People think we're going to be good; some people don't think we are going to be good," Fleck said during spring practice in March. "I'm going to err on everybody thinking we're going to be good, so we're going to train our players: Here's what's coming."
The Gophers welcome the pressure after going 7–6 in 2018 with one of the youngest teams in the nation. Minnesota returns the majority of its production from a year ago — 90 percent on offense and 66 on defense.
Together, these factors put the program on the upswing and could place the Gophers on the fringes of the national rankings. This meets Fleck's timeline. He often uses a home-building metaphor to describe his process: Year 1 was the excavation; Year 2 the pouring of the foundation; Year 3 the frame of the house.
Previewing Minnesota's Offense for 2019
The Gophers' nine returning offensive starters are the most in the Big Ten West, and it marks the first time Fleck will return experience at quarterback.
Sophomore QB Zack Annexstad won the job out of training camp in 2018 and started the first seven games before he was injured. Sophomore Tanner Morgan took over the rest of the way. Annexstad was 3–4 as a starter, while Morgan was 4–2. Morgan had a 147.6 passer rating to Annexstad's 117.7. Annexstad seems to be the better pure passer, while the shorter Morgan tends to create more with his legs.
The Gophers will feature a stable of quality targets, including All-Big Ten senior Tyler Johnson, who set single-season program records of 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. Lauded freshman Rashod Bateman impressed with 704 yards and six TDs. Tight ends Brevyn Spann-Ford and Jake Paulson could provide another layer of receiving options for a Gophers offense that has lacked any threat from the position under Fleck.
Sophomore back Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for 5.7 yards per carry and nine scores, with a Quick Lane Bowl MVP to cap his surprising year. He took a leading role after Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks went down with ACL injuries. Smith and Brooks will be back healthy in 2019, setting up a three-headed rushing attack. Together, Brooks and Smith have rushed for more than 4,000 yards and nearly 40 touchdowns.
The Gophers' two departures come on the offensive line, and filling the left tackle spot vacated by Donnell Greene was the biggest challenge in spring practice.
Previewing Minnesota's Defense for 2019
Fleck fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith after his unit allowed 646 yards in a 55–31 blowout loss to lowly Illinois last November. It was the last straw after three previous Big Ten opponents put up at least 42 points and 420 total yards in blowouts. Interim DC Joe Rossi earned the job on a permanent basis after the Gophers' historic win over Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan's Axe, their first win in Madison since 1994.
It will be interesting to see the stamp Rossi puts on the defense with a full year to prepare. The view in spring practice was a base 4-3 front, with many variations off of it.
Last year's top two tacklers — linebacker Blake Cashman and safety Jacob Huff — are gone, but dangerous end Carter Coughlin headlines the list of six returning starters. Coughlin’s speed and pass-rush moves are tough to stop. He had a 9.5-sack season in 2018.
Minnesota natives Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin will stabilize a linebacker corps without Cashman.
The biggest boon is the return of safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who redshirted after a foot injury in the fourth game a year ago. The Freshman All-American in 2016 will be counted on to provide leadership in a secondary with a host of unproven players. Sophomore Terell Smith has the length, speed and early experience to now become a top cornerback.
Defensive tackle is the most uncertain position group, with Notre Dame graduate transfer Micah Dew-Treadway set to be counted on this season. A pair of 2019 recruits, Keonte Schad and Rashad Cheney, will need to quickly acclimate to the physical demands of the Big Ten.
Previewing Minnesota's Specialists for 2019
Emmit Carpenter, the Gophers' most accurate placekicker ever, is gone, and a position battle will be waged between scholarship freshman Michael Lantz and UConn graduate transfer Michael Tarbutt. Senior punter Jacob Herbers punted only 51 times, the fewest in a Gophers season since 2005.
Winfield and Demetrius Douglas each had punt returns for touchdowns last season.
The Gophers' light nonconference schedule and easier crossover games against the Big Ten East (Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers) put a nine-win season — including the bowl game — on the table for the first time since 2016. Given Minnesota’s returning offensive production, a measure of improvement from Annexstad and/or Morgan could make this one of the top offenses in the Big Ten. If Rossi’s defense builds on a strong finish to 2018 and replaces a few key tacklers, Minnesota might have balance on both sides of the ball.