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.
Gophers finally grab the Axe, manage to make big statement in the process
It’s been 14 agonizingly long years, but the streak has finally come to an end and the Minnesota Gophers have taken possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
To make the win even sweeter, Minnesota became bowl eligible as they chopped down the goalposts at Camp Randall Stadium for the first time since 1994.
It is time to revel and celebrate for sure. As head coach P.J. Fleck stated after the game, “this is for the state of Minnesota.”
But, this win was more of a statement than just ending a streak. How Minnesota beat the Badgers told a tale of a team ready to compete at a very high level.
Much has been made of the growing pains of a young Gophers team. On Saturday, that team finally put it together for 60 minutes in all three phases of the game.
There was a punt return for a touchdown and three made field goals from the special teams. Minnesota’s defense held Jonathan Taylor out of the end zone, forced three interceptions and a fumble out of Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook and the offense took those four turnovers and capitalized on them to the tune of 24 points.
The Gophers defense played so well on Saturday and really throughout the final few weeks of the season that interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi had the interim tag removed after the game according to Fleck.
Minnesota didn’t win on a miracle or a fluke play. The Gophers were the better team on the day. That’s important to remember.
So is the fact that this young team will now have 15 more practices and chances to get better because of this win.. Given the youth of this team, those moments are invaluable.
The experience of getting back to a bowl game will also help. Every chance to be competitive matters.
But now the bigger questions will be asked. Can the Gophers use this win as a game-changer for this program in general? Is this the defining moment of the Fleck era or a fleeting moment of glory?
Only time will answer those questions, but it is hard not to be positive about this program after getting the biggest albatross removed from around the neck of the Gophers program.
Annexstad shows promise in Gophers debut
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.
Gophers, Huskers could have games altered by Oregon wildfires
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.
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.
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.
— Nadine Babu (@NadineBabu) August 17, 2017
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.