Few observers are snickering over P.J. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mantra after the Gophers’ performances spiked in his third season at the helm last fall.
Minnesota finished 11–2, with signature wins over No. 5 Penn State and then No. 9 Auburn in the Outback Bowl. It was the first time the Gophers had won more than 10 games since 1904, when high school teams were on its schedule. Fleck’s overall success a year ago produced a raise and a contract extension through the 2026 season. The current belief is that this new high-water mark, which included a No. 10 ranking in the postseason AP poll, can be a springboard to being a perennial contender in the Big Ten West.
Previewing Minnesota’s Offense for 2020
The Gophers lose the program’s all-time all-purpose yardage leader in running back Rodney Smith and a record-setting receiver in Tyler Johnson, but they have plenty of playmakers to fill the gaps. Among Minnesota’s seven returning offensive starters are second-team all-conference quarterback Tanner Morgan, and 2018 leading rusher Mohamed Ibrahim. Not a bad place to start. However, the offense suffered a setback in early August when All-America receiver Rashod Bateman decided to opt out of the 2020 season and declare for the NFL Draft.
A big factor in maintaining the success will be how the Gophers adapt to new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr., and how the former Notre Dame OC and Western Kentucky head coach adapts to what worked under former OC Kirk Ciarrocca before he left for Penn State.
The offense centers on Morgan, who became the first quarterback in Gophers history to finish a season with more than 3,000 passing yards and 30 passing touchdowns. The junior has seen his name on the fringes of the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Without Johnson and Bateman, other receivers need to step up. Chris Autman-Bell, who had only 28 receptions in ’19, will be the top player expected to step up in Bateman and Johnson’s stead.
When Smith and fellow outgoing senior tailback Shannon Brooks were injured in 2018, Ibrahim stepped up to rush for 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns. He stepped up again in the Outback Bowl, with 20 carries for 140 yards and a touchdown against Auburn.
The starting offensive line returns intact — left tackle Sam Schlueter, left guard Blaise Andries, center Conner Olson, right guard Curtis Dunlap, and right tackle Daniel Faalele.
The top four tight ends are back as well, a list beginning with Jake Paulson and Brevyn Spann-Ford. Sanford’s offense will need to get them the ball more.
Previewing Minnesota’s Defense for 2020
Minnesota’s defense will undergo a transition, with only five starters returning. Gone are five of the top six tacklers from last season, starting with last season’s defensive MVP, safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who left early for the NFL. But the rest of the secondary returns — top cornerbacks Benjamin St-Juste and Coney Durr, who each had a team-high 10 pass breakups, and strong safety Jordan Howden, the top returning tackler.
“We are going to have an experienced secondary, (players who) can be leaders for us,” third-year defensive coordinator Joe Rossi says.
Winfield’s replacement, Tyler Nubin, was a highly regarded prospect out of Illinois, and he cut his teeth playing 12 games, primarily special teams.
Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin showed the smarts to play all three linebacker spots last season; he’s penciled in to start at middle linebacker with stalwart Thomas Barber gone.
The defensive line will have only one returning starter in nose tackle Micah Dew-Treadway, a 6'4", 315-pound plug who is back for a sixth year of eligibility. Rossi is counting on the Notre Dame transfer to lead up front.
With the starting defensive ends gone, Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo are the primary edge players expected to have bigger roles this season. Mafe is coming off three sacks last season, including one in the Outback Bowl. Fleck boasts about Mafe’s freak athletic characteristics, including a vertical jump approaching 40 inches.
Previewing Minnesota’s Specialists for 2020
These Gophers units lagged well behind the offense and defense last year. Freshman kicker Michael Lantz made 8-of-11 field goals but had a long of only 40 yards while sharing duties with Brock Walker, who went 3-for-4, with a long of 26 yards. New punter Mark Crawford comes from the established Australian pipeline and will look to improve on Jacob Herbers’ 38-yard average a year ago.
Returners Demetrius Douglas (punts) and Ibrahim (kickoffs) hope to stabilize those units.
Minnesota should contend for a Big Ten West title again this season — if the defense can replace its lost production and Morgan and Ibrahim can find a rhythm with Sanford Jr. The Gophers avoided a lot of injuries last year, and with depth concerns, they will need to do so again.
Like at Western Michigan, Fleck had success without a target firmly planted on his team’s back. The 2019 team was picked by the conference’s media to finish sixth in the division; they were second on a tiebreaker to Wisconsin.
Now we’ll see how his team performs under pressure to be one of the conference’s best.
National Ranking: 20
(Top photo by Kelly Hagenson, courtesy of gophersports.com)