What should fans expect from the 2017 Golden Gophers? I’ve seen pundits predict finishes of 4-8, 8-4, and everything in between. With a new coaching staff and a new quarterback, I can’t say I find that surprising. I’ll have a game-by-game breakdown with my prediction later in the week, but let’s start the season with an overall look at how the team has changed.
The good news is that they didn’t lose many impact players in the off-season. The bad news is that one of them was quarterback Mitch Leidner, now in camp with the Minnesota Vikings. New head coach P.J. Fleck has said that senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft will both see time under center, at least initially. Running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, arguably the top tandem in the NCAA, return as juniors. The two combined for 1,808 yards and 21 touchdowns a year ago, and that was with Brooks missing a handful of games. Stalwart tackle Jonah Pirsig graduated, but the rest of the offensive line has a significant amount of experience and played well a year ago.
Among the questions for the offense are whether someone can step up and become a true number one receiver. It will be interesting to see how involved the tight ends are in the passing game as well. Brandon Lingen has shown flashes when healthy, and 6’10” Nate Wozniak has potential to be a huge target (pun intended).
While only a handful of starters return on the defense, most of the players do have a fair amount of experience. Senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson was named to the watch list for the Bronko Nagurski award, given to the nation’s best defensive player. (Nagurski, of course, was a standout at Minnesota in the late 1920’s and later for the Chicago Bears). Flanking Richardson on one side will be sophomore Carter Coughlin. Coughlin played sparingly last year, but he was very highly rated coming out of high school. Another DE to watch for is Tai’yon Devers, who was outstanding in limited action as a freshman last season.
At linebacker, seniors Jonathan Celestin and Cody Poock lead a group of less-experienced underclassman. Junior Blake Cashman, a former walk-on who more than earned his scholarship last season, is another guy to watch. In the backfield, the Gophers will be replacing cornerback Jalen Myrick. Junior Antonio Shenault and senior Adekunle Ayinde have a fair amount of experience despite not having been regular starters in the past. The safety position should be in good hands with Antoine Winfield Jr. and Duke McGhee returning, although beyond them the position is a bit thin.
Another question for the defense is whether they can be more disciplined this season. A year ago the Gophers led the nation in targeting fouls and ejections. McGhee, in particular, as a senior and a leader, needs to avoid the ejections (I believe he had three last year).
This unit should be in good shape. Punter Ryan Santoso and kicker Emmit Carpenter played very well last season. The only thing I question is whether Rodney Smith will continue returning kicks. With a new quarterback, the Gophers will lean heavily on the run game, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea to have your top running back risking injury on returns. Time will tell.