For the next two weeks, we’ll be taking a look at where each B1G team needs to improve and answering pressing questions this offseason. For some it’s establishing depth, and for others, it’s learning a new system. Whatever it is, each team has at least five things to take care of before 2016 kicks off.
1. Establish new leaders in the secondary
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Minnesota had two of the country’s most underrated defensive backs in Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray. I sound like a broken record, but it was true.
With those two, and leading tackler Antonio Johnson gone, Minnesota has some key holes to fill in its defensive backfield. Jalen Myrick showed promise filling in for Boddy-Calhoun last year and will be relied on heavily as a senior, assuming he can stay healthy.
The question will be who gets the start beside Myrick. KiAnte Hardin is the likely candidate to do that after a solid freshman season in which he played more that the Gopher coaching staff probably expected him to. Antonio Shenault also played at corner as a true freshman because of Minnesota’s injury-riddled secondary. It’ll likely come down to those two or Ray Buford — all of which are entering their second year in Minneapolis — to fill that spot.
Luckily, the Gophers should have Demarius Travis back at safety after he went down in the 2015 opener. He could take over the playmaker role left by Boddy-Calhoun and Murray.
2. Keep Mitch Leidner healthy and get him comfortable
I know there are frustrated Gopher fans who feel like Leidner has been the starter in Minneapolis for eight years. It hasn’t been quite that long, but there aren’t many unknowns about the Minnesota signal-caller anymore.
Following his offseason foot surgery, Leidner is reportedly healthy and ready to give it one more go. He needs his mobility for the Gopher offense to take a step up.
After Tracy Claeys took over, Leidner showed significant improvement against top-notch competition. In those final six games — four were against top 25 teams — he averaged 257 total yards, nearly two touchdowns per contest and he completed 60 percent of his passes. Those might not be first-round numbers, but compared to his first three B1G games (149 total yards, four interceptions and 13 points per game), he was far more of an asset than a liability.
For the most part, Leidner looked comfortable down the stretch. It might not have been enough to wash away some engrained opinions from Gopher fans, but he’s still the best option for 2016. Minnesota has a veteran — one who actually fares better against the blitz than normal pressure — who has had plenty of experience to learn from. If he can stay healthy, he’s capable of having his best season in 2016.
3. Find ways to get Shannon Brooks the ball more
Rarely does a coach find himself saying that a true freshman didn’t get the ball enough. But after Brooks exploded on to the scene, that’s exactly what the Minnesota staff said.
The former unheralded recruit is going to get closer to 20 touches per game in 2016. He’s deserving of it, too. The only two times Brooks got 17 carries in a game last year, he ran for 170-plus yards. Don’t be surprised if you see Brooks fill K.J. Maye’s role on jet sweeps. He already has that type of versatility in the running game.
Minnesota coach Brian Anderson told me that if not for Rodney Smith, Brooks would be getting David Cobb treatment and running the ball 25-plus times per game. So the key for Minnesota is to make Brooks game-flow proof. In other words, he should be getting touches no matter what the score is.
Unless, of course, he already scored a few touchdowns and gave the Gophers a comfortable second-half lead.
4. Develop pass-rushers
National media might not remember that Minnesota actually played well against elite competition last year. The Gophers had chances to beat Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and TCU. I always thought the one thing that prevented Minnesota from getting over the hump in those games was its inability to get a big sack on third down. The Gophers lacked that consistent pass-rusher.
Gone are the likes of De’Vondre Campbell and Theiren Cockran, who were their two best pass-rushing linebackers. Jack Lynn is the leader of the unit, and plenty capable of getting into the backfield (11.5 tackles for loss) but he only had 1.5 sacks last year. Tackling machine Cody Poock was a pleasant surprise in his first season of action, though he’s still searching for his first Division I sack. Nick Rallis and Jonathan Celestin also came on strong late and will add a veteran presence to the group.
Julian Huff could be the pass-rusher the Gophers need. Used primarily as a third-down specialist, Huff had 2.5 sacks as a true freshman. Without Campbell and Cockran, Huff should get more snaps if Minnesota is still struggling to get to the quarterback in its base defense.
If he can develop into a more complete edge-rusher, that would go a long way toward helping a veteran Minnesota defense get over the hump.
5. Get offensive line in order
Minnesota might not have lost a bunch of NFL offensive linemen, but there are a ton of holes after losing eight scholarship guys in 2015. The Gophers also parted ways with Matt Limegrover, who is now the offensive line coach at Penn State.
The good news for new offensive line coach Bart Miller is that despite all that the Gophers lost at the position, he inherited some experience. Starters Connor Mayes, Tyler Moore, Jonah Pirsig are all back after helping fuel an improved offensive attack down the stretch. In typical Minnesota fashion, JUCO transfers Vincent Calhoun and Garrison Wright are expected to start.
The issue, however, is depth.
Guys like Jered Weyler, Matt Oldenkamp and Luke Rasmussen haven’t seen any game action. In fact, only five Gophers — including rotational guys Matt Leidner and Chad Fahning — have played a snap at the FBS level.
Minnesota was bit by the injury bug frequently in 2015, and at a position like offensive line, it’s inevitably going to happen again. This is a major offseason for some inexperienced Gopher linemen to step up and show that they’re worthy of capitalizing on the opportunity if and when it comes.
If this unit transitions well, Minnesota is more than capable of reaching the 8-10 win mark Claeys set for his team in 2016.