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Minnesota Gophers Football Preview: State of the 2017 Offense

What does the Gophers new-look offense have in store for the 2017 season?

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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.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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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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talking10 Power Poll: Surprises galore in Week 1 poll

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We’re back…after a long offseason, the staff is finally back to watching football, crunching numbers and giving you our opinions on all things Big Ten football.

It also means our weekly staff Power Poll is back as well.

This season we’ve got five staff members voting every week. That includes the following names:

Andy Coppens@AndyOnFootball

Phil Harrison@PhilHarrisonCFB

Philip Rossmann-Reich – @RiseNU

Dave Fitzgerald@BuckeyeFitzy

Zach Worthington@Worthyton

Normally the opening week of the season provides little in the way of knowledge, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2017. Dare we say the first week of action for the Big Ten was highly entertaining?

You can say that, and we did over at the #B1GRewind Show.

But, how did all of that excitement shake out when it came time to vote? Let’s take a look at the official poll for Week 1:

Let’s just say things were a bit wackier than usual, huh?

Takeaways:

  • Only three teams lost this week, yet it was a winner, Illinois, coming up dead last and it wasn’t even close. The Illini’s unimpressive three-point win was also our winner for “Disappointment of the Week” on the #B1GRewind show…so perhaps their last place finish in the power poll this week was really warranted. It also appears that hanging tough with ranked teams meant a lot to our voters.
  • While the rest of the college football world is in love with Ohio State…our staff is much more in love with the Nittany Lions…well not “much more” but they won out with three first place votes and OSU falling outside the top two in one voters mind.
  • It appears there is going to be an interesting battle for the middle of the pack over the next few weeks. Michigan State was No. 7 in this poll, but had just a three-point lead on No. 10 Nebraska. Let’s just say the next few weeks should shake out the middle a bit more.
  • Speaking of close fights…the battle between Michigan and Wisconsin for the third spot should be an interesting one indeed. Can Wisconsin’s offense keep up the high-scoring and keep UW ahead or will Michigan’s exciting youth movement grow up fast enough to challenge for the top of the East division and thus our poll as well?
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talking10 Pick’Em league has arrived!

Join our staff in a season-long Big Ten predictions challenge! Come on…you know you want to know our picks and beat up on us for bad plays!

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We’ve had fun on the talking10 podcast giving you previews and predictions over the last few seasons. This year we’re turning that up a notch around here.

Yes, you can now play along with us each and every week! Welcome to the talking10 Pick’Em league brought you by Yahoo! Sports.

Each week you’ll hear us make our picks on Wednesday night and filling out our sheets live on the Podcast. You can play alongside all of our staff and shame us as you win or we get to laugh at you as we rise to the top.

This Pick’Em league is free of charge and is for more than just bragging rights. The winner at the end of the season gets a special prize package from us here at talking10. So join up with the following information:

League ID: 3991

Password: Delany17

Finally, please make sure to make your team name your Twitter handle or your first & last name so we have a way to reach out to you once the season is over….if you win!

We dare you to beat us! We double dog dare you!

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