Minnesota football: Grading every position group after the 2022 regular season
An 8-4 season? Well, it could have been worse, right?
After expecting to fight for a B1G West title, Minnesota will await its bowl assignment to close out another year of the PJ Fleck era. A quick bounce here, a short hop there, and perhaps the Golden Gophers are sitting at 9-3 and preparing for a trip to Lucas Oil Stadium.
Another bounce and perhaps the Golden Gophers finish with 10 wins for the 1st time since 2017.
Injuries and a lack of depth at key positions hurt the Golden Gophers late in the season. The loss of a key offensive piece entering November did little to help morale as well. In the end, maybe 8-4 was right on schedule instead of underachieving knowing the parameters.
Let’s look back and grade every position in Minneapolis from the past year:
It’s a tale of 2 parts. Tanner Morgan underachieved for a veteran who’s held the title of QB1 full-time since 2019. On the flip side, Athan Kaliakmanis looked like a freshman with upside but in need of further development.
Morgan completed 67.3% of his passes, but only managed to throw 7 touchdowns against 5 interceptions. In wins over Colorado and Michigan State, the senior looked great, tossing 6 touchdowns against 1 interception while finishing with a combined passer rating of 206.8.
The rest of the season? Yikes. Morgan only threw 1 other touchdown, and that came against FSC Western Illinois.
Kaliakmanis might have something brewing if his performance against Wisconsin is a sign of what’s to come. He threw for 319 yards and 2 touchdowns while posting a passer rating of 180.7. In 4 starts, the 6-foot-4 gunslinger posted a 2-2 record.
Running backs: A –
If grading a player, this would be an A+ without question. Instead, we’re grading the unit.
Mohamed Ibrahim was the offense most weeks. If he was able to bulldoze his way forward for 6 points on the regular, the Golden Gophers stood a chance. Entering Saturday’s win for the Paul Bunyan Axe, Ibrahim has rushed for over 100 yards in each of his past 19 outings. This year, the super senior totaled career-highs in carries (304), yards (1,594) and touchdowns (19).
It’s hard to judge the rest of the room when their opportunities and impact were scant compared to Ibrahim. Combined, Trey Potts, Bryce Williams and Preston Jelen totaled 146 carries for 726 yards and 7 touchdowns. Ibrahim, who will go pro after this season, was credited with 55% of the Golden Gophers’ carries.
Receivers/tight ends: C-
The play of Brevyn Spann-Ford raises this mark by a full letter grade. The St. Cloud native led the Gophers with 40 catches and scored 2 touchdowns. He also was consistent as a run blocker, opening lanes for Ibrahim on the edge.
The rest of the receiving room could use an offseason upgrade. Daniel Jackson was 1 of 2 players with over 400 receiving yards and led Minnesota with 3 touchdowns. Dylan Wright managed to haul in only 1 touchdown, while Chris Autman-Bell averaged a team-high 19.7 yards per reception before his season-ending injury.
Wright and Jackson both will be back, but the Gophers could be in need of a legit No. 1. That arguably could be Minnesota’s top priority this offseason in the transfer portal.
Offensive line: A-
The offensive line served as one of the Gophers’ biggest strengths this past season. As run blockers, the Gophers might have the 2nd-best line in the conference. Minnesota ranked 11th nationally in rushing and 39th in yards per attempt (4.78).
In pass protection, the unit allowed 15 sacks. For the most part, Morgan played with an elongated window to pass, being sacked only 7 times. Kaliakmanis was sacked 6 times, though 3 came in the season finale win over Wisconsin, which ranks 29th nationally in sacks with 31.
Minnesota will lose standout center John Michael Schmitz to the pros. The same could be said for the entire right side of the offensive line. Hopefully, Brian Callahan has the backups hitting the sleds all offseason.
Defensive line: B
Much like the quarterback position, one must split the analysis in half. As a run defense, Minnesota ranked 15th nationally, holding opponents to 105.8 yards per game and 3.71 per carry. They allowed only 8 rushing touchdowns and often made teams with weaker backfields 1-dimensional.
In terms of pass rush, someone needs to step up as the new No. 1 defender. Danny Striggow finished with 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. Outside of him, no player on the defensive front 7 totaled more than 1.5 sacks. A very Jekyll/Hyde situation occurring in the trenches each week.
Tackling machines is the best way to describe the Gophers’ duo up the middle. Mariano Sori-Marin recorded 78 total tackles, including a 15-tackle performance against Penn State. Cody Lindenberg, meanwhile, totaled 60 stops, a pair of pass deflections and a sack.
Sori-Marin is set to go pro after a 5-year stint, while Lindenberg should take over as the field general. Who will step up as the team’s new No. 2? Early odds would favor junior Donald Willis, who recorded 15 tackles in 8 games.
It’s a shame the Gophers received little respect nationally when talking about their secondary. Ranking 8th nationally in passing yards allowed, Minnesota allowed just 8 touchdowns and forced 13 interceptions. Teams averaged 173.1 yards per game through the air, while quarterbacks completed roughly 57.1% of their throws.
Justin Walley is set to return as the leading man on the perimeter, while Michael Dixon will return as the do-it-all nickel defender. Replacing talents such as Tyler Nubin and Terrell Smith might be a bit more of a challenge. Nubin led Minnesota with 4 interceptions while fellow senior Jordan Howden broke up a team-high 4 passes.
Special teams: C
There’s nothing special about these special teams.
Matthew Trickett made a career-long 50-yard field goal in the season finale win over the Badgers. He finished the season 15-of-18, missing kicks from 28, 34 and 48 yards out.
Mark Crawford averaged barely over 40 yards per punt, ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten.
In the return game, the Gophers were credited with 1 explosive punt return of over 20 yards, and 1 kickoff return of over 50+ yards. That’s about it in terms of these less-than-ideal special teams units.