Change is the name of the game in Minneapolis in 2017, especially when you talk about the Minnesota Gophers football program. With new head coach P.J. Fleck in charge, a lot is changing around the program.
That means new players getting chances and old ones getting new life as well.
As we continue our #GophersWeek here at talking10, it is time we look to specific players who could have a major impact on the 2017 season.
Let us look at five players who are likely to impact how this season goes.
Demry Croft, QB
After speaking to those in the know, it is clear the front-runner to win the quarterback job is redshirt freshman Demry Croft. When looking back at the spring game it is easy to see why too. He’s got the extra athleticism and perhaps the stronger arm in the QB1 battle.
That said, if Croft wins this job outright in fall camp, certainly the prospects for changing the explosiveness of the offense rest on his shoulders. It could be argued that the Gophers will only go as far as Croft is able to carry them.
Sure, Minnesota will have a really good rushing attack with the two-headed monster that is Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, but as we saw all of last season, that only takes you so far.
Rashad Still, WR
If quarterback is going to be key, you can bet the people who will do the pass-catching will be important too. When you look at the changing Gophers offense, Still provides the biggest chance at being able to stretch the field.
You don’t need to believe me, just watch this 60-yard touchdown reception in the spring game.
He comes in to this season having caught just 18 passes last season, but he did average 19.3 yards per reception for 349 yards of receiving offense. Not too shabby for a sophomore season. This year, Still will be expected to be the leader of the Gophers wide receiver group, especially with Drew Wolitarsky graduated.
While Wolitarsky was the No. 1 target, Still provided the most explosive plays in the passing game. Look for Croft and Still to be a huge factor in just how changed the offense will be in 2017.
Emmit Carpenter, K
When an offense stalls out, there’s nothing better than being able to rely on your kicker. One of the biggest helps to P.J. Fleck’s transition year will likely come from the leg of junior kicker Emmit Carpenter. Last season, as a sophomore, Carpenter connected on 91.7 percent of his field goal attempts (22 of 24) and was named the Big Ten’s official Kicker of the Year.
Putting his importance in other terms. His 22 made field goals accounted for 66 points and were nearly half of the 45 touchdowns scored by the Gophers last season.
Having an accurate kicker and one that is even more deadly from beyond 40 yards is vital to a team’s success in close games. Carpenter hit 10 of his 22 made field goals last season from 40 yards and beyond, including three from 40-plus yards against Indiana State and two 50-plus yard makes against Purdue.
There may not be a better single player in the Big Ten at his respective position on the Gophers than Carpenter.
Jonathan Celestin, LB
Minnesota’s offense seems to have gotten a lot of the attention this offseason, and rightfully so. However, the reality of the Kill and Claeys era was that it was a strong defensive effort that got them over the hurdle more often than not.
A lot of the talent that gave the Gophers a killer defense the past two seasons have graduated and/or are off to the NFL. Just look at cornerback where this list of players are gone —Eric Murray, Briean-Boddy Calhoun, Jalen Myrick and KiAnte Hardin.
In fact, just six starters return from last season and of that group Celestin is the leading returning tackler with 80 total in 2016. While defensive tackle Steven Richardson was a third-team All-Big Ten pick, Celestin hold the keys to success in 2017. He wasn’t a slouch last season, picking up honorable mention All-Big Ten honors at arguably the most loaded position group in the conference last season.
With the more aggressive nature of the defense this upcoming season, Celestin is going to be a very important piece to the puzzle. If his play continues to rise, look for the Gophers defense to lead the way once again in Minneapolis.
Donnell Greene, LT
With a new quarterback in place, his best friend is often the guy protecting his blindside. In the case of the 2017 Minnesota Gophers, that job will go to one of the two returning starters along the offensive line — former JUCO transfer Donnell Greene. Amazingly, Greene was one of just four healthy bodies for most of spring camp.
That means he was also one of the four players who basically played every rep of every scrimmage and practice scenario possible. It should mean an already good left tackle finished spring with even more experience and better technique.
He was part of a group that let up only 16 sacks all of last season, and with a mobile quarterback and plans to get in space more that number could stay the same or similar this season.