Welcome to the new era of Minnesota Gophers football, where rowing a boat isn’t just something done on the myriad of lakes in the state. It is a mantra of which the Gophers program will be built around with new head coach P.J. Fleck in charge.
But, we aren’t here to dissect the ins and outs of Fleck’s motivational speeches and slogans. It is time to dive deep in to the team that will eventually take the field come Labor Day weekend.
Up first is our look at the 2017 offense, and it may be the key to whatever happens, good or bad, for the U-M team this upcoming season.
Key Returning Players: Shannon Brooks, RB; Rodney Smith, RB; Nate Wozniak, TE; Rashad Still, WR
Key Players Lost: Mitch Leidner, QB; Jonah Pirsig, OL; Matt Leidner, C
Coaches Coming In: Kirk Ciarrocca, OC/QB’s; Kenni Burns, RB; Brian Callahan, TE; Matt Simon, WR; Ed Warinner, OL
The good news is…
Minnesota has made some really good hires for P.J. Fleck’s first coaching staff. One only needs to look at the name of its offensive line coach — Ed Warriner. The former Ohio State offensive coordinator is one of the elite offensive line coaches in the country, and getting him on board at Minnesota was a huge win.
Warriner will have his work cut out for him, with only two returning starters returning in left guard Garrison Wright and left tackle Donnell Greene back. It didn’t help much that those offensive linemen that were on campus this spring were mostly the walking wounded. By the time the spring game rolled around, there were just four…FOUR…total offensive linemen available.
But, Warriner wasn’t the only home run hire for Fleck’s first staff. He’s just the most well-known name. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has been with Fleck since the beginning at Western Michigan, and that offense went from ordinary to a whole lot of fun to watch in a short time in Kalamazoo. What will Ciarrocca do with greater potential talent available to him in the Big Ten?
You also can’t sleep on the changes happening in the support staff, as Fleck brought in the highly touted strength and conditioning coordinator Dan Nichol. He’s come in and made some big changes to the weight training and strength training
The bad news is…
Biggest question heading in to 2017: What the heck will the offensive line look like?
Seriously, it was nearly impossible to know what this offensive line was going to look like this offseason and then there were only four healthy players by the end of spring ball.
What we did see from the line in the spring was encouraging, so that is something to hang your hat on if you want to look at the Gophers offense as half-full. The group that was out there played well in the spring game, opening good holes in the run game specifically.
Some may point to what will happen at the quarterback position as the vital question for Gophers offensive success. It is an important one, not doubt, but does it really matter if the folks up front aren’t doing a good job of giving the rest of the offense a chance to succeed?
The good news is…
There is some big time talent to work with in the run game. Running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith are two of the best returning running backs in the Big Ten. In fact, they may be the best 1-2 punch in the conference heading in to the season.
Brooks and Smith put up 1,808 yards and 21 touchdowns combined last season. They’ll be the focal point of the offense this season as the rest of the offense looks to transition in to a more vertical passing attack offense. Let’s also remember that Shannon Brooks was only healthy for 10 of 13 games last season and likely would’ve pushed this group higher than fifth in the Big Ten in rushing offense.
That was last year though, and it seems as if the only thing that could stop this duo from lighting things up in 2017 will be the group charged with opening holes for them up front. We’ve already highlighted the issues that happened this spring with the offensive line, and depth has to be a concern there.
Still, the different approaches to the run game that Brooks and Smith bring to the table are certainly going to be difficult for opposing defenses to deal with.
The bad news is…
Most of Minnesota’s best talent on offense is off to graduation or the NFL. The Gophers have to replaces names like Jonah Pirsig and Matt Leidner up front, while quarterback Mitch Leidner has finally graduated.
In some ways it may seem like good news that Leidner is gone, especially with the new offense that Fleck and Ciarrocca bring to the table. They expect far more of the passing game than what Leidner and Co. could ever bring to the table.
However, there is a serious question about where the quarterback position actually stands right now. Seth Green would have seemed like the favorite, as he was the most heralded QB recruit of the Kill/Claeys era. But, after spring it seemed as if Conor Rhoda found new life in Fleck and Ciarrocca’s system. Additionally Demry Croft was lofted in to the conversation as a potential starter as well.
Following spring it seemed as if Croft and Rhoda had separated themselves at the top of the quarterback depth chart. Still, are either the immediate answer or will it take a year or two for this offense to really kick in to gear?
What Does it All Mean?
Like much of what we’ve talked about with the Gophers offseason, we simply don’t know enough about this team to understand what the offense is really capable of. There are big questions to answer at quarterback and the offensive line, and those positions are kind of important to success in the Fleck offense.
The hope comes from a new culture in place and a reset for people like Conor Rhoda and Rashad Still. In fact, the latter may be the most underrated wide receiver in the Big Ten heading in to 2017. He’ll get every chance to prove us right with an offense that needs his talent in order to succeed.
Much of this season’s offensive success is going to come from how quickly the new coaching staff is able to instill confidence in players who haven’t had a ton of success in the past at Minnesota. If the Gophers can score in the range of 30-34 points per game on the season, it will be a good sign for the offense and the record at the end of the season.