Welcome back to B1G West contention, Minnesota.

Maybe it’s a little too early to make a hasty generalization after a spring game, but there’s no question that the Golden Gophers looked like a squad that had made some serious improvements from the 2020 season to Saturday’s scrimmage. The offenses were particularly impressive throughout the afternoon, and there didn’t appear to be many weaknesses on that side of the football.

Of course, that means that there might be some deficiencies defensively. The Gophers struggled on that end last fall, a big reason why they finished with a 3-4 record after an impressive 11-2 campaign in 2019.

There were more positive takeaways than negative observations from TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. And there’s plenty to discuss from the spring game as Minnesota’s embarks on its fifth season under head coach P.J. Fleck.

It’s Chris Autman-Bell’s time to shine

Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, and now, Chris Autman-Bell.

For anyone wondering how Minnesota would replace Bateman, a star receiver in the Golden Gophers’ offense the past two seasons who was selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, you don’t have to look any further than Autman-Bell. The team’s most experienced wide receiver is ready for the opportunity to be the No. 1 option in the passing attack.

Autman-Bell made a pair of really impressive catches in Saturday’s scrimmage. The first was a 34-yard reception over his back shoulder, thrown perfectly between the defender and sideline by Tanner Morgan. On the same drive, Morgan connected with Autman-Bell again in the back of the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown grab over a defender.

Autman-Bell has already caught 78 passes for 1,250 yards and 6 touchdowns with the Golden Gophers, and that’s when he wasn’t the featured receiver. He flashed the potential to double his career totals in the 2021 season as the top priority in the offense.

The question is who will the Gophers have behind him as second, third and fourth options? Clay Geary and Daniel Jackson made some big plays throughout the scrimmage, but can they be consistent contributors and alleviate some of the pressure off Autman-Bell?

The QBs are looking really good

We saw the 2019 version of Morgan on the field at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. He was hitting his targets frequently, putting the ball right on the dot and put a lot of trust in his receivers to make plays. There wasn’t that panic that was evident at times last season.

That probably has a lot to do with the offense line being at full strength. When Morgan gets protection and time to make throws, he’s as accurate as any quarterback in the B1G.

Perhaps the most impressive performance of the day came from Zack Annexstad, though. Suffering an injury in 2019 and not seeing the field last year, the former walk-on showed no signs of a quarterback who hadn’t stepped on a field in two seasons. He put plenty of zip on the ball and was hitting receivers in tight windows. During a two-minute drill on the final possession of the spring game, Annexstad made some really impressive throws in crunch time.

Having two quarterbacks playing at a high level is a really good problem for Fleck and the Gophers.

Annexstad probably isn’t going to dethrone Morgan as the starter in Minneapolis, but he was a kid who won the job as a true freshman walk-on in 2018. Morgan is going to have to continue to perform at a high level through fall camp to retain his status as QB1.

Defense still needs some work

With the positives come the negatives, right?

Minnesota’s defense wasn’t particularly impressive during the spring game, giving up a lot of yards and struggling to keep the receivers in check. At times, tackling seemed to be an issue, as well.

There were a few good moments on the defensive side of the ball. Derik LeCaptain was able to haul in an interception for the Maroon team off Annexstad at a critical point in the 4th quarter when the game was knotted at 17-17. On the final drive of the game, the Maroon defense came up with a goal line stand against the Gold offense, capped by a Terrell Smith interception to seal a 24-17 victory.

In some big moments, the defense made plays, but it wasn’t as consistent as it needs to be next season. Yes, it did look a little better than last year, which is a step in the right direction.

Basically, this is still work-in-progress. Joe Rossi is going to have to improve this unit between now and when Minnesota kicks the season off against Ohio State in September.

The offensive line could be the best in the B1G West

When you look at how well Mohamed Ibrahim ran the ball last season, it’s hard to believe that the offensive line struggled. That was the case, though, particularly in pass protection. The Gophers weren’t horrendous up front, but they certainly took a step back from the 11-2 campaign in 2019.

After watching Saturday’s scrimmage, you can make the argument that the offensive line is going to be the strongest position group for Minnesota in 2021. And that’s after seeing the starting unit split up and playing on separate sides during the spring game. Imagine what that group can do when it’s at full strength.

There’s no doubt the offensive line missed Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap Jr. last season, as neither saw the field during the 2020 campaign. Having those two back is a significant boost up front and could be the difference between a solid offensive line and one of the best in the B1G next season.

Plus, we saw Faalele show off his passing skills and Sam Schlueter is an adequate running back in times of trick plays. Who doesn’t love that benefit?

Special teams is still a question mark

It’s hard to judge the kicking game during a scrimmage, especially when the long snapper, holder and kicker are the only ones on the turf for field goal tries and extra point attempts. Brock Walker put the ball through the uprights a few times on Saturday, but it was far from the kind of pressure he’ll face during the season.

Minnesota’s special teams was an Achilles heel for the squad a year ago. After the weekend, it’s almost impossible to judge whether or not this unit has improved at all or if it will continue to struggle.

That’s a question that won’t be answered until Sept. 2.