By: Adam Braunstein
The Minnesota Golden Gophers were one of college football’s pleasant surprises last season, winning 9 games including a 17-12 victory in the National Funding Holiday Bowl over Washington State. Despite the Golden Gophers’ strong season, doubts certainly remain that they belong among the Big Ten elite. Even the Minnesota athletic department clearly had its doubts, as they decided to fire Tracy Claeys after two seasons and replace him with former Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck. What can we expect from Minnesota in Fleck’s rookie season? Let’s take a look at the Golden Gophers offense, defense, and special teams to find out.
Last season Minnesota finished fourth in the Big Ten with 29.3 points per game. That is very solid, especially considering the three teams that finished ahead of them were Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. For Minnesota’s offense to maintain or even improve, they will have to replace Mitch Leidner, who threw nearly every pass for the Golden Gophers last season. Despite Leidner’s dependability to take the field, his play was undeniably subpar. He threw just eight touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his final year in Minneanapolis. Either Conor Rhoda or Demry Croft will replace Leidner under center this year. Fortunately for these quarterbacks, they should have a very strong running game to depend on.
Both Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks will return to school, meaning that Minnesota has one of the premier backfields in the Big Ten. Smith took a huge step forward from his freshman to sophomore season, rushing for nearly 500 more yards and 14 more touchdowns. Expect Fleck to rely heavily on the ground game this season.
This offseason Minnesota brought in former Arkansas Razorbacks defensive Robb Smith to take over what was already a very strong unit. In the secondary Minnesota will be very young, but talented. Look for Antoine Winfield Jr. to have a strong sophomore season and solidify himself as one of the best defensive backs in the Big Ten.
The linebackers return the bulk of their production. Jonathan Celestin, Blake Cashman and Cody Poock. If Poock is healthy, look for him to make a tremendous impact. The redshirt senior missed a large chunk of last season due to injury, but recorded 99 tackles in 2015 and was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention by the media.
The biggest challenge for Minnesota’s defense will come on the defensive line. Plain and simple, Minnesota won games in which it stopped the run last year and lost games in which they were unsuccessful in doing so. What Coach Smith is able to get out of this unit will largely determine how Minnesota does this season.
Minnesota has a star in redshirt junior kicker Emmit Carpenter. Field goals are generally anything but a guarantee in college football, but Carpenter was just about automatic in 2016. Carpenter connected on over 91 percent of his kicks, was named the Big Ten’s kicker of the year, and was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award. Special teams is one area in which Minnesota can go toe-to-toe with just about any team in the nation.
Looking at Minnesota’s schedule, it starts off with several winnable games. The Golden Gophers do not play a team currently ranked until November 4, when they travel to Ann Arbor Michigan to take on the Wolverines. However, their last four games are brutal, taking on Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
Expect Minnesota to have a strong season, with P.J. Fleck injecting a lot of energy into the program and taking advantage once again of a favorable schedule. Nine wins seems like a bit of a stretch, but Minnesota should be able to win more games than they lose and return to a bowl game this season.