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Minnesota 2016 Spring Football Preview

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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.

Key Dates:

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.

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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Annexstad shows promise in Gophers debut

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Plenty of people were curious about the Minnesota Gophers starting quarterback coming in to the season opener. After all, it’s not often that a true freshman walk-on gets the starting nod. 

But, the attention and pressure of the first college game was not too much to handle for Gophers quarterback Zack Annextad. After a few shaky moments early on, Annexstad looked like he belonged on the field in the Gophers 48-10 victory over New Mexico State. 

Annexstad wasn’t super accurate, completing just 48 percent of his passes. But, he more than made up for it with a blistering 220 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, he kept the Aggies from picking him off all game long. 

Perhaps the best bit of news is that it appears the Gophers may have more than one good target for Annexstad to work with. Veteran wide receiver Tyler Johnson was on point, catching five passes for 100 yards and both of the touchdown throws.

Rashod Bateman caught five passes and Chris Autman-Bell had four to his name as well. 

Meanwhile, sophomore wide receiver Seth Green looked dangerous as an all-around player. He touched the ball in the backfield twice and scored on both of those touches, giving future opponents plenty to think about when it comes to game-planning for the Gophers.

Minnesota also showed off an impressive run game after a rocky start on the ground. Star running back Rodney Smith racked up 153 yards and the Gophers ran for 295 yards and three touchdowns as a team. 

Add in a defense that allowed just 38 yards on the ground and only 10 points and there is a recipe for success going forward. 

Of course, one has to take in to consideration the caliber of opponent, but for a team with a lot of question marks on offense, there’s little doubt this was a confidence builder. 

While there will be plenty of improvement needed in order for Minnesota to be competitive come Big Ten play, this offense looks and feels different than it did a year ago. 

As far as debuts go, there certainly was promise shown from Annexstad and that’s really all you can ask for from a freshman making his first start. 

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Gophers, Huskers could have games altered by Oregon wildfires

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Mother Nature could wreak havoc on college football this upcoming weekend, but the majority of the news has been focused on an impending hurricane barring down on Florida.

A look out West and things are just as dangerous and deadly, as wildfires are raging in California, Oregon and Washington. That could present a big problem for the Minnesota Gophers game on Saturday night with the Oregon State Beavers and Nebraska’s visit to the Oregon Ducks.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune cites sources within the Pac-12 saying that the game time may be moved or the game moved all together.

While the fire isn’t the problem, it is the air quality in the Eugene area that is. Oregon has already had to move practice closer to the Pacific Coast and the air in Eugene appears to be a major issue.

The smoke in Eugene, where an air protection agency listed the air quality as “hazardous,” prompted Oregon to move its Tuesday practice to Florence, near the Pacific coast.

The good news is that the smoke cleared enough a day later for the Ducks to return to practice in Eugene. But, there is reason to believe the game could still be an issue as smoke is expected to return.

The smoke is supposed to return at some point. But we just don’t know when. … There are too many variables for us to look that far ahead of time.”

Yes, that means we won’t know about the status of Nebraska-Oregon until Saturday itself.

Meanwhile, things don’t look as precarious for the Gophers matchup, but that doesn’t mean change would be out of the question.

“Based upon the information provided by the air protection agency and the expert health and safety advice of the respective University medical professionals, a decision will be made on whether or not to adjust game times and/or dates with the safety of student-athletes and fans as a priority,” Andrew Walker, the Pac-12’s vice president of public affairs, wrote in an e-mail to the (Portland) Oregonian.

Once again, it appears things are going to be in a wait-and-see mode in Corvallis as well.

It hasn’t affected Minnesota all that much, as they are more worried about playing at game that would kick at 9pm in Minneapolis if it were being played at home.

Head coach P.J. Fleck has talked this week about making sure players are staying up later as the week goes on to adjust their bodies. That’s especially important as practices are taking place first thing in the morning this season.

Either way, both of these programs are dealing with a lot of uncertainty right now and that may be the biggest hurdle to get over when prepping for Week 2.

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Fleck smart to let QB battle play out in actual game action

P.J. Fleck continues to row the boat at his own pace, deciding on not one, but two starting quarterbacks for the season opener against Buffalo.

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What is better than one starting quarterback? Two starting quarterbacks.

At least that is the theory Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck is going to test out for his first season at at the helm of the Gophers.

It’s a bold strategy (insert meme here), and one that hasn’t exactly worked out well for just about anyone in the past you say? Heck, even with two potential NFL draft picks it didn’t work out well for a program like Ohio State and a coach like Urban Meyer back in 2015.

The history of bad news coming with dueling starting quarterbacks heading in to the season hasn’t stopped Fleck from doing just that though.

It shouldn’t be surprising however. After all, P.J. Fleck is his own man, and many of the decisions he makes on and off the field demonstrate just that.

But, on Thursday Fleck made a pretty bold decision at quarterback — he’ll go with both Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda as starters entering the season.

To be fair, the two quarterbacks haven’t exactly separated much in fall camp.

To the outsider that could be bad news, but according to the head coach himself, it was due to both earning the opportunity on the field.

“Every time I think I see one nudging the other out, the other one closed the gap and passed him.” Fleck said, via the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “And they’ve continued to do that. That tells me this late in training camp that both of ’em deserve to play.”

Fleck also brought up a very good point in his talk to the media — neither have a wealth of game experience to draw on and that makes separating based on practice alone a bit of a crapshoot.

“If I was to tell you that I knew exactly how those quarterbacks are going to play in a game, that’s a guess,” Fleck noted, while also pointing out just how little game experience exists.

There is a grand total of 17 passing attempts in a game between the two of them and 15 of them belong to fifth-year senior Rhoda. He went seven of 15 for 82 yards and a touchdown.

Fleck is also thinking ahead with this decision, because we all know every team in America is just one big hit away from having to go to the backup quarterback. Why not get whomever that will ultimately be some game experience while sorting things out?

It was part of Fleck’s reasoning to the media on Thursday as well.

“If we think we can go through the Big Ten and not need two quarterbacks at some point, I think we’re crazy to think that,” he said. “We’re gonna need ’em.”

With a new energy and style around the Gophers program, it seems almost fitting that Fleck would buck most of recent history — whatever he wanted to claim about two-quarterback systems working.

For every Alabama in the past few years, there is an Ohio State or Wisconsin or others to show Fleck the dangers of a prolonged QB battle.

The hope has to be that the separation that didn’t happen in spring or fall camp does happen once the games go live. Otherwise this could be one interesting first season in Minneapolis.

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WATCH: Gophers describe personality of 2017 team

P.J. Fleck says Rodney Smith is the personality of the 2017 Minnesota Gophers. So, what exactly is Smith’s personality and why is a fit for the Gophers?

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At Big Ten media days on Tuesday, Minnesota Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck opened up the day by announcing that the personality of this team was that of running back Rodney Smith.

However, Fleck left that statement wide open to interpretation. What is that personality and why is it Rodney Smith? I mean, he is one of the best returning running backs in the Big Ten, so having him be the focal point of the team on the field is just smart.

So, curious as to why Smith was the one singled out by Fleck at the podium during his initial press conference, we went to his teammates to find the answer. They all seemed to have one common answer — happy.

Well that and plenty more..Check out the answers from Smith himself and his teammates. All that

and more from the highlights of Day 2 at Big Ten media days.

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