Change is the name of the game entering the 2016 season, as now full-time head coach Tracy Claeys has the reigns of the program all to himself for the first time. He wasted little time in making some big changes to the offensive coaching staff, and not a bit too soon given what happened to the offense in 2015.
Gone was fellow long-time Jerry Kill assistant Matt Limegrover and in his place steps Jay Johnson and a much more spread attack for the offense. After setting school records for offensive production at his last two stops, expectations will be high in the long-term for Johnson.
It also means a reset at virtually every position, and that means plenty of unknowns as we head in to the 2016 season. What will the offense actually look like and which stars will emerge?
Can the Gophers get back to competing at the top of the Big Ten West division? The offensive effort will have a lot to say about that.
With highly regarded recruit Seth Green on campus for spring and senior-to-be Mitch Leidner limited by recovery from foot surgery, things appeared pretty up in the air at this position. However, Claeys has made it very clear that Leidner is the man he is going to stick with as his starter.
There’s reason to be optimistic about this choice, as Leidner improved his completion percentage nearly nine percent last season and threw for nearly 1,000 more yards in his junior year than his sophomore season (1,798 to 2,701).
Sure, the issues of consistency were there (14 touchdowns to 11 interceptions), but an offensive line that couldn’t stand up in pass protection was nearly as at fault for any of the 11 interceptions as Leidner was for letting go of the football.
Claeys also made it clear that Demry Croft is going to be the main backup, but it was hard not to be impressed by the work put in by Green either.
Green’s arrival and his hype were pretty well matched by his production this spring. He’s got the arm and he appears to have the legs to really make the spread offense go in a Gophers uniform. There are still issues with knowledge of the offense and overall control, but the future appears bright and he may just be the man backing up Leidner this fall already.
Let’s just say things are looking up at the quarterback position in Minneapolis, and when was the last time we could say that?
After a year of having to rely on the passing game, the hope in Dinkytown is that things will turn around in the running game. It needs to the be the bread and butter of the offense, and it appears the running backs are ready to do their part.
Minnesota loves the 1-2 punch of sophomores Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, and they should after the duo combined for 1,379 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Add in what should be an improved offensive line and this run game could be really interesting.
Beyond those two, a third option emerged this spring in James Johannesson. He had 22 carries for 130 yards in the spring game alone and that should give the coaching staff plenty to like at the position in 2016.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Things start and end with one name — Drew Wolitarsky. With KJ Maye off to the NFL, Wolitarsky jumps off the page as the one to watch at this position in 2016. He finished is junior season with 39 receptions for 524 yards and three touchdowns. Look for those numbers to make a significant jump.
His biggest help in the pass catching area isn’t going to come from his fellow wide receivers though. Instead, look to stalwart tight ends Brandon Lingen (33 receptions, 428 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Eric Carter (23 receptions) to really help Wolitarsky out the most.
The rest is a whole lot of unknowns, and fall camp will really tell a lot between names like Brian Smith, Isiah Gentry and Rashad Still (who could be the third starter when they go three-wide). However, Gentry and Still missed time this spring and will need to get ahead of the game in summer workouts.
Going in to spring, all the focus was on exactly whom would protect the blindside of whatever quarterback would take snaps behind center in 2016. The latter part has been answered, but not so much the former.
Look for a battle to continue to wage between JUCO transfer Garrison Wright, redshirt freshman Nick Connelly and junior Chad Fahning. Someone will have to start, and this coaching staff wasn’t about to limit the competition in the spring. Smart money is on Wright to take over unless Connelly steps his game up in the weight room and on the field in the summer.
However, the good news is the right side of the line looks solid with tackle Jonah Pirsig and JUCO transfer Vincent Calhoun really impressing all spring long. It was no coincidence that the coaching staff ran right up their backsides all spring game long.
If the rest of this group can come together like Calhoun and Pirsig have, offensive line coach Bart Miller is going to be in for a raise. He certainly knows what he’s doing, having a glowing recommendation from his time at rival Wisconsin a few years ago.
Our Projected Starting Lineup:
WR: Drew Wolitarsky, Sr.
WR: Brandon Still, Jr.
TE: Brandon Lingen, Jr.
TE: Eric Carter, Jr.
LT: Garrison Wright, Jr.
LG: Connor Mayes, Jr.
C: Tyler Moore, So.
RG: Vincent Calhoun, Jr.
RT: Jonah Pirsig, Sr.
QB: Mitch Leidner, Sr.
RB: Shannon Brooks, So.