The Tracy Claeys era in Minnesota is about to officially begin. His predecessor, Jerry Kill, succeeded in turning Gopher football into a viable and competitive program. Coming off of a disappointing 2015 season, there is some work to be done on Claeys' part to get the Gophers back to where we though they were headed last fall. There are some key pieces in place, which along with a bowl victory are both positives to build off of. Can Minnesota get back to being a serious contender in the Big Ten West? It all starts this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch in Minnesota's Spring Practice
1. How secure is Mitch Leidner's job?
Leidner will see limited action this spring as he continues to recover from foot surgery. We know there will be a battle between Demry Croft and true freshman Seth Green to be his backup, but the winner could be a serious threat to steal Leidner's gig. There were times last season where it felt like Minnesota would have been better served with a more capable passer under center. Green is intriguing in that regard, as he's more mobile than Leidner and throws lasers. Leadership and experience are Green’s only question marks, and those could disappear this spring.
2. Finding a left tackle
It doesn't matter who lines up under center if Minnesota can't protect him. There are a number of possible options due to Minnesota's collection of versatile offensive linemen. The smart money is on redshirt freshman Nick Connelly, who spent last season trying to add bulk to his 6-foot-7 frame. His top competition will likely be junior college transfer Garrison Wright.
3. The growth of Jalen Myrick
The Gophers lost two probable NFL Draft picks at the cornerback position this offseason. Myrick will be called upon to be Minnesota's top corner — likely finding himself on an island frequently throughout the season. He has plenty of experience playing the position during the last couple of seasons, but now he’ll be defending the Big Ten's top receivers every week. Improving technique and confidence in the spring will be priorities — as Myrick will be tested often in 2016.
4. Can Minnesota get pressure up front?
The Gophers lost defensive lineman Thieren Cockran and Scott Epke. They were two of the best in the conference and leave gaping holes in Minnesota's front seven. Guys like Steven Richardson and Andrew Stelter will need to step up their games in order for the Gophers to avoid a drop off. Getting a consistent push will be important in a division with some many good running backs and mobile quarterbacks.
5. Is there a home-run hitter on offense?
One of the biggest problems that seemed to hold back Minnesota's offense in 2015 was the lack of a consistent big-play threat. Running back Shannon Brooks showed flashes of potential to be that guy, but Claeys and his staff would probably like to see a wide receiver step up in that regard as well.
Pre-Spring Minnesota Outlook in the Big Ten
Right now, the Gophers are a bit of an afterthought. Iowa will be the favorite in the Big Ten West, and there are rumblings (as always) of big expectations from Nebraska. Be that as it may, the West will likely be wide-open once again. If Minnesota can find consistency in the passing game and plug some of the big holes they have on defense, there's no reason Claeys and his staff can't have the 2016 Gophers in the hunt for a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game.