Thursday, June 1, 2017

Bilo's 2017 College Football Previews: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota Golden Gophers
It would seem to me that a potentially blind eye may have unraveled much of what has been built at Minnesota in the last few years under both Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys. I was never the biggest Kill fan, but could never really put a finger on as to why, but now maybe I know. There was a culture of lacking accountability that grew under Kill, and an early season alleged sexual assault case led into a massive demonstration of ignorance and irresponsibility in December that caused a walk out by the team just before the bowl. While Claeys supported the suspensions that came out of the investigation of the assaults privately, he took the wrong turn and publicly backed his players, which was the wrong course to set, and it cost him his job. Enter PJ Fleck, a guy who certainly knows how to promote his interests and that of his football team. He took Western Michigan to an undefeated season before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, and he took the opportunity to launch himself into a bigger job. Can he continue to build on what has been laid out as a foundation, or did the bad behaviors off of the field last season create such a mess, that the foundation must be rebuilt? Will this group of players buy into the Fleck policy of accountability, or will they continue to buck the trend of taking responsibility for their actions and become better players and men for it? These are all major questions that go beyond the heart of just playing football, but are all too important.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
The star of this offense should be TB Rodney Smith in 2017. Smith rushed for 16 scores on 1158 yards rushing last fall, and although he was banged up at times, he still managed to average 4.83 yards per carry. He was much more explosive earlier in the season, and when completely healthy, he has the ability to up his average by a yard per carry. He may very well be one of the speedier players on the team. Shannon Brooks rushed for 650 yards as his primary backup last season, and returns as well, as will Koby McCrary.
That group will run behind a line that returns four starters in 2017. LT Donnell Greene, LG Garrison Wright, C Tyler Moore, and RG Vincent Calhoun all return. The top backup at RT, Chad Fahning, will be back, and he looks to be in competition with Quinn Oseland for the job.
Emmitt Carpenter was one of the best PKs in the country, as he hit 22/24 FGs last fall. He will be back to give the Gophers almost guaranteed points.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
Mitch Leidner is gone at QB, and that I find both good and bad. The Gophers offense was always a bit handcuffed by his lacking passing skills, and Fleck likes to open things up through the air and create a balance, which is something that was always missing under Leidner's grip on the offense. The Gophers will miss his legs on the rushing attack, but the only issue I have with his loss is finding a replacement that is built for running the new offense. Conor Rhoda is the likely candidate right now, but I am not sure that he is the long term answer.
Speaking of the lacking passing attack, top receiver Drew Wolitarsky is gone after leading the team with 66 catches last fall. No other starting receiver caught at least 20 passes last season, so someone has got to step up. Fleck, a former receiver, should help coach some guys up, and don't forget that this is the guy who just had Corey Davis at WMU.
Finding an answer at RT is the most pressing need on the line, and I am certain that this will not be a major issue in fall camp.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
Half of the defensive line will still be intact in 2017 in DE Gaelin Elmore and DT Steven Richardson. Richardson finished with a team leading 11 TFLs, and Elmore added four more last season.
The same can be said about the secondary, where half of the unit returns as well. KiAnte Hardin is back at CB after finishing with four PBUs, two INTs, and 39 tackles. Antoine Winfield, Jr. was a primary piece in the assault investigations, but had his suspension overturned in March, and will return. He finished with 52 tackles last fall, and had three PBUs.
Ryan Santoso will give the guys a chance, after he averaged 40.9 yards per punt last fall.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
Four new starters need to be found in the front seven, and that is a massive cause for concern early on. Hendrck Ekpe and Scott Ekpe are gone on the line, while NIck Rallis and Jack Lynn are both gone at LB. Tal'yon Danvers, a sophomore, is in line to take the open DE job, while the DT job is still wide open heading into fall camp. Thomas Barber, a sophomore, has the open track to one of the open LB jobs, and Julian Huff will battle Carter Coughlin for the other open LB job heading into camp.
Half of the secondary needs to be replaced as well. Damarius Thomas is gone st Safety, while Jalen Myrick is off to the NFL at CB. Junior Jacob Huff has the inside track at Safety, while there is no clear answer yet at the open CB spot.
2017 Schedule: 8/31 Buffalo, 9/9 at Oregon State, 9/16 Middle Tennessee, 9/30 Maryland, 10/7 at Purdue, 10/14 Michigan State, 10/21 Illinois, 10/28 at Iowa, 11/4 at Michigan, 11/11 Nebraska. 11/18 at Northwestern, 11/25 Wisconsin
Final Overview
The pieces are absolutely in place for PJ Fleck to have a good deal of success in year one. The early schedule is a bit of a cake walk for the Gophers, and they get to avoid Ohio State and Penn State from the East this fall, which is a huge break. They still get Michigan on the road in November, which is not a major break.
Finding a QB to move the offense will be first priority for Fleck, as will finding people to get the football to in the open field. If Fleck can answer those issues, and rebuild a ravaged (by departures) defense, the Gophers can make a major late season run on the Big 10 West title. I do not see them getting far enough to take the division from Wisconsin, but they will get a little closer than they did last fall when two late losses doomed their chances. One thing I can assure you of is that with Fleck in charge, this will be a fun team to watch. Eight or nine wins are well within reach.

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