Minnesota football: 5 biggest holes to fill in 2021 starting lineup
Sometimes, the ultimate result is a matter of perspective.
While a .429 winning percentage is far below the standard P.J. Fleck has set for Minnesota football, the bigger picture after 2020 is this:
The Golden Gophers will be one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten in 2021.
One of college football’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks forced Fleck to go young at key positions. Minnesota had a relatively green roster to begin with, but it was forced to balance trying to win with using valuable game repetitions for development.
There will be no such paradoxical strategy required in 2021.
The Gophers are set to return 10 of 11 starters on offense and defense. That leaves very few gaps to plug, but there could be some important shifts depending what happens during spring ball and fall camp.
Here are 5 key positions that will or could see a new name at the top of the depth chart when Minnesota hosts Ohio State on Sept. 2.
WR: Chris Autman-Bell replacing Rashod Bateman
Technically, this already happened. Twice. Following a personal COVID scare during the summer, Bateman opted out of the 2020 season, only to return. Then when the virus ran through the roster, Bateman hung it up early to focus on his NFL future.
Autman-Bell will be the team’s top option at receiver, again, with little chance for such volatility this year.
For his part, No. 7 handled the situation like a champ, smiling his way through an up-and-down season, welcoming his buddy Bateman back with open arms, and finishing the year with 22 catches for 430 yards and a score. Autman-Bell is a playmaker, but how will he perform when he doesn’t have Bateman preoccupying defenses?
WR: Michael Brown-Stephens replacing Autman-Bell
The answer may lie with Brown-Stephens, who along with Daniel Jackson displayed some flashes last season. Both freshmen are in line for plenty of game action, but Brown-Stephens’ sheer athleticism and Jackson’s inconsistency at times would appear to give the former a slight leg up.
Brown-Stephens caught four passes for 40 yards and a touchdown last year. He also has a redshirt campaign under his belt, so in theory he’s had more time to develop his body than Jackson.
We’ll see how much starting this spring.
CB: Phillip Howard replacing Benjamin St-Juste
St-Juste declared for the NFL Draft, so (technically) the lone spot to fill on defense likely falls to Howard. The sixth-year senior — you’re going to see a lot of those in the next couple of years thanks to COVID — appeared in 6 games last year, recording 11 tackles and a pass breakup.
Howard has been waiting in the wings for some time. He has just 1 career start and is a converted wide receiver — a perfect candidate to benefit from an extra year of eligibility. With Coney Durr returning at the other corner, expect Howard to match up with opponents’ No. 2 receiver and get a chance to use his speed in some blitz packages.
DT: Nyles Pinckney replacing DeAngelo Carter
Don’t get this one twisted. Carter, a freshman in 2020, is far from a hole to be plugged.
But he was one of the players thrust into a role he may or may not have been ready for in 2020. Putting Pinckney ahead of Carter gives him more time to develop and could actually make him more productive when he does play. Carter will see plenty of time regardless of whether he’s unseated as a starter or not.
But Pinckney comes in on a different level. The transfer from Clemson logged 98 tackles, 3 sacks, a forced fumble and 3 fumble recoveries in 55 games (15 starts) from 2017-20. He also knows a thing or two about what championship football looks like and is a huge get for Fleck and his program.
K: ??? replacing ???
Three kickers attempted a field goal for Minnesota in 2020. None was very consistent.
Three kickers kicked off for Minnesota in 2020. None was very consistent.
Missed field goals cost the Gophers in overtime against Maryland and Wisconsin.
The virus ran through the special teams room throughout the season, but this remains a position the Gophers must figure out. Brock Walker (who played at less than 100% due to a sports hernia), Michael Lantz and kickoff specialist Dragan Kesich are all back. Transfer Daniel Sparks handled kickoff and punt duties at Louisiana-Monroe but probably deserves a shot at kicking field goals and PATs during the spring.