Better or worse? Previewing Minnesota's offense in 2022
In 2021, Minnesota posted its second-best record in the PJ Fleck era (9-4, 6-3 Big Ten). They finished second in the Big Ten West, but November losses to Illinois and Iowa (last year’s West Division champion) kept them from making the trip to Indianapolis. In those games combined, the Gophers were held to a total of 28 points. A better offensive performance against the Fighting Illini and the Hawkeyes could have made all of the difference.
In 2022, Fleck and Co. look to make up for those shortcomings. While they were one of college football’s better teams last year, their offensive numbers could have been better. The Gophers were 9th in the Big Ten in total offense (360.1 ypg), had the B1G’s 3rd-worst passing offense (162.0 ypg), and were 7th in scoring (25.5 ppg). They were, however, the conference’s 3rd-best team when it came to running the ball (198.1 ypg).
Throwing the ball a little more this year could help them get closer to their goals of winning the Big Ten championship. They certainly have the talent do that this year, and this edition of better or worse will detail how that could look.
Key losses: Ky Thomas, RB; Mar’Keise Irving, RB; Cam Wiley, RB; Brady Boyd, WR; Ko Kieft, TE; Daniel Faalele, OL; Blaise Andries, OL
Key returnees: Tanner Morgan, QB; Trey Potts, RB; Bryce Williams, RB; Mohamed Ibrahim, RB; Chris Autman-Bell, WR: Michael Brown-Stephens, WR; Dylan Wright, WR; Daniel Jackson, WR; Brevyn Spann-Ford, TE; John Michael Schmitz, OL; Axel Ruschmeyer, OL; Nathan Boe, OL
Potential breakout players: Preston Jelen, RB; Clay Geary, WR; Chuck Filiaga, OL
I think of three words when I look at the names on this offenseL Experience, experience, experience. Although there will be a slight drop in production, the Gophers bring back plenty of talent, and some injured key players from last year will be returning. From a positional standpoint, this Gopher team is in excellent hands.
Passing offense: Even
That’s a no brainer considering all of the talent that’s returning. Everything on this side of the ball starts and ends with Tanner Morgan, who’s returning for one final season. The 6th-year senior was 8th among Big Ten QB’s in passing yards last year (2,044). He was also 5th in yards per attempt (8.2), but was 8th in touchdown passes (10) and completion percentage (59.8). He’s been better, and returning to that form is paramount for this offense.
What will help Morgan get there is the fact that his top 5 pass-catchers, in terms of yards, receptions and touchdowns, are back. Wide receivers Chris Autman-Bell (36 catches, 506 receiving yards, 14.1 ypc, 6 TDs), Mike Brown-Stephens (23, 392, 17.0, 1), Dylan Wright (18, 365, 20.3, 2),and Daniel Jackson (25, 267, 10.7, 1) return to serve as Morgan’s primary downfield targets.
Joining them will be Brevyn Spann-Ford (23, 296, 12.9, 1), who’s set to be the Gophers’ top tight end again this season. The only other players to catch a pass last year were receiver Brady Boyd (2, 18, 9.0), and tight end Ko Kieft (7, 101, 14.4, 1). Both are no longer with the program as Boyd transferred to Texas Tech, and Kieft graduated.
Their losses, however, aren’t a major blow. I’m looking to see more out of receiver Clay Geary. The 6th-year senior missed all of last year with an injury but was primarily a special teams player before that (6 career catches). And with Morgan in his final year, I’d like to see backup QB Cole Kramer get more snaps as a way to ease him into the starters role for 2023. He completed all 3 of his pass attempts in 2021 (including 2 for TDs) and looked impressive during Minnesota’s spring game this year.
One way to help improve the passing numbers is to get the running backs more involved. This position group only accounted for 17 receptions for 150 yards (no touchdowns) last season, but the foundation to get this team moving through the air is there. Speaking of those running backs …
Rushing offense: Better
Last year’s leading rushers Ky Thomas (824 yards, 6 TDs) and Mar’Keise Irving (699, 4) are gone, but they weren’t the Gophers’ best rushers.
Mohamed Ibrahim was and still is. His season-ending injury opened the door for Thomas and Irving, and they played admirably.
Ibrahim is back and healthy. He already has 3,003 rushing yards (went over 1,000 yards in both 2018 and ’20) and 33 rushing touchdowns. His presence alone instantly upgrades this position — and the offense.
Ibrahim will be accompanied by Trey Potts and Bryce Williams. Potts ran for 552 yards and shared the team lead with 6 TDs.
This group will run behind a seasoned offensive line, with John Michael Schmitz, Axel Ruschmeyer and Nathan Boe as the core. It’ll be interesting to see where Chuck Filiaga fits. The graduate transfer from Michigan appeared in 39 games for Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines and can play on either side.
Special teams: Even
Matthew Trickett returns after making 17-of-25 field goals (68.0) and 36-of-38 extra-point attempts (94.7). His leg is strong, too: He made 13 field goals from 30 yards and beyond. Last year’s leading returners were the aforementioned Irving (194 kick return yards) and Brock Annexstad (71 punt return yards). With both men no longer with the team, the Gophers will lean on a new group of returners for 2022. Bryce Williams and Trey Potts both have prior experience in the return game (142 kick and punt returns combined last season), and they’ll get extended opportunities this season.
Ibrahim’s early exit impacted Minnesota’s offense last season. Morgan, in particular, struggled.
Is he still the same QB who threw for 3,253 yards and 30 TDs in 2019? Or the QB who combined to throw for 3,418 yards and 17 TDs the past 2 seasons?
If he’s the former, Minnesota will easily surpass last season’s scoring total (25.5 — a Fleck-era low).
Bottom line: There are so many key players in place, it’s fair to expect this offense not only to be better than last year but give the Gophers a chance to win the B1G West.