Northwestern is not the only cold weather Big Ten West team to start the spring football train (and not in the cozy confines of Bradenton, Florida). Minnesota joins the club this week and starts spring drills for 2015!
Although all of the practices this week and 8 of the 15 overall are closed to the public and media, we expect some reports will trickle out even during this first week of working with new full-time head coach Tracy Claeys and his staff. There’s a lot to get done here for a new coach, even though the regime change is not as dramatic when taking over for a medical retirement in the case of Jerry Kill.
Here’s the lowdown on the important stories and goals for the Golden Gophers this month.
1st Practice: March 1
Spring Game: April 9, TCF Bank Stadium
1 Big Question to Answer in Spring: What will the new offensive game plan look like?
Coach Claeys surprised some in the Big Ten media by making some coaching changes when he took over the staff at the end of the year, including most notably, by hiring a new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson form Louisiana-Lafayette. Johnson ran a more wide-open attack for the Cajuns, leading to four of the best seasons of offensive output that program has achieved.
Perhaps most importantly, Johnson’s quarterbacks have always been very high on the pass efficiency charts. That is one area where current senior starting QB Mitch Leidner can certainly improve, after being mostly a game manager until circumstances called for some bolder plays last season.
Unfortunately Leidner remains somewhat sidelined with recovery from foot surgery after an injury in the Quick Lane Bowl, so Johnson will not be able to let his quarterback run as many good reps as he would like when changing an offensive system. Still, it allows the new offensive staff to begin building depth at that position and for the future beyond 2016. If anything, Leidner will only be able to participate in some informal 7-on-7 drills.
The amount of changes in the playbook will be interesting to see, as it’s unclear whether 80% of the plays will be new or more like 25%, with wrinkles added to well-worn pages of the playbook. One would expect spring practice to not look that different than before, but perhaps the media and fans will see some wild stuff if Minnesota is experimenting now to try and find the right mix for this fall.
2 Reasons to Actually Pay Attention to Spring Practice (Or Not)
— New coaches and a senior quarterback being held out for protection means a ton of new faces and new looks will be available for fans. Especially for those who are eager for more changes, there will be a ton of new stuff to focus upon over the next five weeks (including which quarterback will be the face of the future for this football program). Although we have spotlighted the offense above, Claeys has promised to dedicate most of his time to the offense, so which coaches and players step up to keep the consistency on defense will be a story to watch as well.
— Kicker Battle! A legitimate battle at the punter position appears to be upon the Gophers, as all-conference punter Peter Mortell has finally graduated and moved on to the next phase of his career. When a team is likely to rely heavily on defense and special teams, and when an offense is figuring itself out under new leadership, the punt can easily become a critically important play. Current kicker Ryan Santoso will get a look here, as well as new faces Jacob Herbers and Logan McElfresh. If you love the punt, this will be a fun position battle to watch.
3 Positions Needing Most Work
— Defensive Backfield: Heading into last season, this appeared to be the position of strength for the Gophers, with three returning starters and four seniors leading the way. Safety Damarius Travers was lost for the 2015 season though, which made the unit a little weaker than expected, but that has paid off in Travis being around to train the new crop of talent taking over for 2016. There will be a lot of reliance placed on guys who redshirted last year, including Ray Buford, which could spell disaster if not handled correctly this spring.
— Offensive Line: Claeys wants to bring more aggression and explosiveness at the offensive front, which makes sense given his pedigree as a long time defensive coach. He will need to do that with mostly new names up front, however. What could help the offense is the emergence of two junior college transfers who are now eligible, Garrison Wright and Vincent Calhoun. But if Leidner and the young running backs are to be effective at all, this has to be an area of big development with 3 or 4 new starters stepping in.
— Punter: Although it was brought up above, the position which Minnesota most desperately needs to fill is punter, given that Peter Mortell was arguably one of the best players on the team last season. Hopefully the Gophers make it a moot point with an offense that gets rolling well this season, but you can’t always count on that in the rugged 9-game Big Ten schedule starting this season. Most other positions other than the two above are pretty solid as well, making this one stand out more than usual.
4 Players to Watch
Andrew Stetler, DL — The interior of Minnesota’s defensive line appears to be solid with two returning starters, but one player who was a backup and is generating some offseason workout buzz is Stetler. It’s a proven fact that Big Ten teams can never have too many quality defensive linemen, especially when facing the rugged rushing attacks of the Big Ten West. As such, the body development and play skill of guys like Stetler will be more important than it may normally appear when looking at a depth chart for 2016.
Brandon Lingen, TE — There’s a chance that the tight end and fullback positions could be a bit blurred by the new offensive staff, in the hopes of creating mismatches with certain defensive schemes and personnel from opponents. If that happens, look for the leader of the tight end position group to be one of the most important and versatile players on the field. Lingen has developed nicely in his first two seasons, but it is still a lot to accomplish for this player.
Jack Lynn, LB — Looking for a new vocal leader on the Gophers defense? Look no farther than this senior, who will lead what appears to be the deepest position on Claeys’ first squad in Minneapolis. Certainly if Claeys needs a senior leader to step up and be a coach on the field, there’s no doubt that Lynn will likely be the one to step up to this challenge. Watching him inspire the young and new players should be a good sign of how things will develop this fall.
Shannon Brooks, RB — Following a freshman season where he ended up leading the team with 709 rushing yards, Brooks appears to be the next go-to guy for this program. With the great numbers the new offensive coordinator put up over the past few seasons at Louisiana, including from his running backs, Brooks has the potential to be the most valuable player on this team for the next two or three seasons. If he is to become a superstar, signs of that should be apparent against a young defense in the spring.
It looks like an exciting spring for a new staff working with a bunch of new players in Minneapolis.
Stay tuned for the remainder of our series of spring practice previews, including upcoming previews for the Indiana schools and Ohio State, which all kick off spring drills in the next week or so.