It's not often that a coaching change in the Big Ten West becomes a national headline in college football, but that’s exactly what happened this offseason when Minnesota landed former Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck. Considering that Fleck's named had been tied to possible future vacancies at schools like Notre Dame and Tennessee, Minnesota's new hire was nothing short of a home run.
Now, however, the honeymoon is over and spring practice is about to begin. Fleck will be challenged by getting to know a new roster, installing his system and learning the tendencies of new opponents in an underrated division. Easing the transition is the fact that the Gophers return the core of the team that won nine games in 2016.
5 Storylines to Watch During Minnesota's Spring Practice
1. P.J. Fleck's Energy and Culture
Fleck is a very positive and outgoing person taking over a situation in Minnesota that ended on a negative note any way you look at it. It will be interesting to see how the Gophers respond to the very different energy he brings to a program. It's tough to envision it not working out, but stranger things have happened. The primary difference will be Fleck's approach centering on players and convincing them to buy into their own talents, whereas the previous coaching staff was about getting players to buy into the scheme.
2. Who Takes the Reins at Quarterback?
Mitch Leidner has finally moved on and the timing seems perfect. The new head coach can now work with a new starting quarterback and perhaps have an easier time molding the would-be leader of the offense to fit the desired offensive approach. It appears that the job is wide open heading into the spring, as four quarterbacks with limited experience comprise the depth chart. My best guess is that it turns into a two-man race between senior Conor Rhoda and redshirt freshman Seth Green. Green's size and skill set could be the deciding factor, as athletes like him at the quarterback position are rare.
3. Solidifying the Defensive Line
The departure of the Ekpe brothers leaves a couple of sizeable voids along the Gopher defensive front. Fleck and his staff will need to find adequate replacements early while also looking for the best rotation. Veterans Gaelin Elmore and Steven Richardson are solid, but they are not players you need to game plan around as an offensive coordinator. Finding a dominant run-stuffer and an elite edge rusher must be priorities. Keep an eye on defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere as a guy who could have a breakout season.
4. Starting from Scratch in the Secondary
The NFL Draft and some off-field, legal issues have gutted the depth chart of the Gopher defensive backfield. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and corner Antonio Shenault look like the most dependable returning veterans. They'll need younger guys like Ken Hany-Holly and Kindre Thomas to step up and grow up quickly. The Big Ten West is going to be a division full of gunslingers in 2017. A shaky secondary could doom the Gophers.
5. Can the Running Game be Dominant?
Minnesota has a chance to be one of the better rushing teams in the Big Ten. The Gophers return four starting linemen and have one of the better running back duos in the conference in Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. Fleck knows a thing or two about pounding the rock. Western Michigan averaged more than 228 rushing yards per game (24th in the FBS) a season ago. An elite rushing attack would help ease in a new quarterback while keeping opposing offenses off the field against what looks to be one of the more inexperienced defenses in the Big Ten.
Pre-Spring Minnesota Outlook in the Big Ten
The Gophers have some serious holes – especially on defense. That said, they also have some talented and underrated skill position players who will be coached up by a staff that knows how to hang points on the board. The Big Ten West is going to be a crapshoot again. Just as Minnesota must do, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa will all be working in new full-time starters at quarterback. The first seven games on the schedule are manageable and give the Gophers a chance to pile up plenty of wins early. The last five weeks of the season, however, are brutal. Trips to Ann Arbor, Iowa City and Evanston mixed with home games against Nebraska and Wisconsin are going to take a toll on any team. The ceiling for the Gophers is being in the hunt for the Big Ten West crown. Unless the wheels fall completely off, this team shouldn't finish worse than 6-6, qualifying for an eighth bowl in the last 10 years.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
(P.J. Fleck photo courtesy of www.gophersports.com)