The Golden Gophers won nine games last season, a win total seen in program history only four times since 1905. Minnesota beat archrival Wisconsin in the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe and shut down West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
Despite that success, last season left head coach P.J. Fleck saying he was unsuccessful.
"I'm up here telling you I failed as a head coach," Fleck said before spring practices began in March. "I did not do well enough, especially on the offensive side of the ball. We were too inconsistent. We had way too many three-and-outs. It just didn't flow together. That starts with me."
It was clear to see where Minnesota fell short. Losses to Bowling Green and rebuilding Illinois — both in Minneapolis — kept the Gophers from a double-digit-win season similar to 2019.
Yet Fleck's primary point was about Minnesota's passing game, which never got off the ground a year ago and led to a massive postseason change.
Previewing Minnesota's Offense for 2022
Fleck fired offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. after the bowl game and rehired former OC Kirk Ciarrocca, who led Minnesota's best offensive outburst under Fleck in 2019. The Gophers had one of the worst passing attacks in the country last year, ranking 118th in passing yards per game (162.0) and ahead of only the service academies in attempts (257).
"We know we have to improve throwing the football," Ciarrocca says. "I think everybody in the state of Minnesota knows that. I think everybody in the Big Ten, they are hoping we don't."
Minnesota must replace five starters on offense — many of them up front, save for All-Big Ten center John Michael Schmitz.
Schmitz is part of the "Encore Four," a nickname from Fleck for the group returning for sixth seasons. Quarterback Tanner Morgan, receiver Chris Autman-Bell and running back Mohamed Ibrahim are also back for more.
Ibrahim is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon in the 2021 season opener, and Autman-Bell had injuries nag him a year ago, especially at the start of the campaign.
Besides Autman-Bell's six touchdowns, no other pass-catcher had more than two. In his second year after transferring from Texas A&M, Dylan Wright remains a breakout candidate. The same goes for 6'7" tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford.
Ibrahim isn't the only tailback coming back from a season-ending injury. So are Trey Potts and Bryce Williams, and the pair who stepped in for them — Mar'Keise "Bucky" Irving and Ky Thomas — both transferred out.
A lot will be riding on Morgan bouncing back from his 10-touchdown, nine-interception performance from a year ago. Morgan and Ciarrocca believe they can rekindle the chemistry from 2019.
The skill players should be there, but will the line be able to plug and play?
Previewing Minnesota's Defense for 2022
What a difference a year makes. Going into last season, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi had to answer countless questions on how his unit would bounce back from a below-average 2020 season. Now Rossi is being asked if Minnesota can remain close to being the nationally elite defense it had in 2021.
"Now, I'm on the complete opposite side of that," Rossi says. "We are sitting here saying, last year, they did a great job. That will be a special group in my heart forever. But this is a new one."
Minnesota was in the nation's top 10 in scoring (17.3 points per game) and total defense (278.8 yards per game) in 2021 but must replace four starters.
Those losses are most acute on the defensive line, with six of the top eight players based on snap counts no longer around. Rush end Thomas Rush and 3-technique tackle Trill Carter are the two holdovers. Transfer portal additions will be counted on here: end Lorenza Surgers (Vanderbilt) and Darnell Jefferies (Clemson).
Minnesota also lost its leading tackler, linebacker Jack Gibbens, and its lockdown cornerback, Coney Durr, but veteran Mariano Sori-Marin will step in at middle linebacker, and Justin Walley will look to build on a Freshman All-America campaign at corner a year ago.
Minnesota also added two corners through the portal: Shannon "Beanie" Bishop (WKU) and Ryan Stapp (Abilene Christian). The staff was pleased with how they assimilated during spring ball.
Previewing Minnesota's Specialists for 2022
Kicker Matthew Trickett made only 68 percent of his field goals (17-of-25) last season and will need to be more consistent in his senior year. Punter Mark Crawford averaged only 41.7 yards per punt, so there is room for him to grow, too. But the bigger area for improvement is in the return game. The Gophers called way too many fair catches. When they did return it, kickoffs ranked 119th in the country, and punts were 60th. Bishop and Stapp are two potential candidates for the roles this season.
The Gophers lost to Iowa for a fifth straight time in 2021. Getting past the Hawkeyes remains the biggest hurdle before Minnesota can put real designs on a Big Ten West championship. To get over that hump, the Gophers will need to make strides in the passing offense and not slip too far defensively. They also will need their transfers along both lines and at corner to hit like their portal additions did a year ago.
Fleck had had seven seasons of ascension at Western Michigan and Minnesota until 2020. They bounced back a year ago and will look to avoid it becoming a roller coaster with a second swoon in three seasons.