P.J. Fleck rows into his third year at Minnesota and after a weird 2018 7-6 season as the Gophers look to take that next step in building their program. The 2018 Gophers were hard to explain. They started 3-0 before getting blown out by Maryland. They also had an inexplicable loss to Illinois later in the season, but had great wins over Purdue and Big Ten West powerhouse Wisconsin. The season ended in great fashion with a 34-10 victory over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.
There is plenty of optimism heading into 2019, but questions remain at quarterback and on defense. The Gophers return plenty of talent as Fleck's rebuild of the program is starting to take hold. With a favorable schedule, Minnesota could wreak some havoc in the Big Ten West, but it remains to be seen how far they can go.
|Head Coach||P.J. Fleck (3rd Season; 12-13 at Minnesota, 42-35 overall)|
|2018 Record||7-6, 3-6 (T-5 Big Ten West)|
|2018 Postseason||Quick Lane Bowl (Beat Georgia Tech 34-10)|
|Biggest Losses||DT O.J. Smith, DT Gary Moore, LB Blake Cashman, DB Antonio Shenault, S Jacob Huff, C Jered Weyler|
|Biggest Returnees||RB Rodney Smith, RB Shannon Brooks, RB Mo Ibrahim, WR Tyler Johnson, WR Chris Autumn-Bell, WR Rashad Bateman, G Blaise Andries, LB Carter Coughlin, LB Kamal Martin, CB Antione Winfield Jr.|
|Summary||Despite an up-and-down year, Minnesota flashed promise last year that has head coach P.J. Fleck optimistic on this season.|
|Matchup vs. PSU||The 2016 game sparked the Nittany Lions magical run, but a tricky road game in November is one the Nittany Lions can't overlook.|
P.J. Fleck played plenty of youth last year and many of them are back. The main question will be at quarterback where Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan were expected to battle for the position. Both players saw plenty of action in 2018, but Annexstad has a foot injury and is out indefinitely. With Morgan at the helm, he looks to build on his 2018 season where he threw for 1,401 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
Minnesota returns their leading rusher in Mo Ibrahim, who ran for 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns. Ibrahim took over the lead back role after Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks were injured. Smith tore his ACL in the first game of the year, and Brooks began 2018 on the shelf, came back for a huge game against Indiana in late October (22 carries, 154 yards), and promptly injured his knee again. Smith may get the primary role and is also a skilled pass catching back and adds another threat to the Gophers offense. If it feels like Smith and Brooks have been around forever, well they have. They'll enter the season at 23 and 22-years-old, respectively.
Minnesota also brings back their top three pass catchers from a season ago. Senior Tyler Johnson elected to return to school after an impressive 78 catch season where he tallied 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns. In addition, Rashon Bateman and Chris Autumn-Bell combined for 79 catches for 1,153 yards and provide Tanner Morgan plenty of firepower.
On the offensive line, there are two starters to replace and a question if the 6’9”, 400-pound Daniel Faalele can lock down a tackle spot. Sophomore guard Blaise Andries returns after appearing in 12 games last season, but can the line gel in time to give Morgan time to utilize his weapons is a looming question for the Gophers.
In 2018, Minnesota fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith after the defense allowed 430 rushing yards (!!!!) to lowly Illinois. At that point in the season, they had allowed 43 points per game in Big Ten play and Smith was replaced by Joe Rossi as the interim defensive coordinator. After they beat Wisconsin 37-15 in their regular season finale, Rossi was tabbed full-time for the job.
Rossi is now tasked with replacing his top-two tacklers from a season ago in linebacker Blake Cashman (104 tackles) and safety Jacob Huff (93 tackles). In addition, the defensive lineman O.J. Smith and Gary Moore are gone from the middle of the line. The defensive line lost a lot of experience and will turn to defensive Micah Dew-Treadway to help bridge that gap.
The good news for Minnesota is linebacker Carter Coughlin is back and last season he tallied 9.5 sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber are also back at linebacker and the two combined for 140 tackles a season ago. With the lack of experience on the line, the linebackers will be key in carrying over their late season defensive surge into the 2019 season.
In the defensive backfield, a young group will be called upon to prevent the meltdowns from a season ago. Twin brothers Julian and Jacob Huff are gone, but returning from a season-ending injury is safety Antione Winfield Jr. For Big Ten fans, that name is familiar as he is the son of the former Ohio State star cornerback. In addition to Winfield, sophomore Terrell Smith is back and will look to secure a spot at cornerback.
Three-year starting kicker Emmit Carpenter is gone and there is a competition for that role between freshman Michale Lantz and redshirt freshman Brock Walter. Punter Jacob Herbers is back for his senior season after averaging 41.2 yards per punt last season. Wide receiver Demetrius Douglas was the primary kick and punt returner last season, but Winfield Jr. could factor in as well. He returned three punts last year, including an electric 75-yard touchdown against New Mexico State.
For Minnesota to factor in the division, Tanner Morgan must take a big step forward in guiding the offense. The key for the Gophers will be the defense that allowed 40 or more points four times last season. They will be tested early as they head to 18th ranked Fresno State in the second week of the season. Their schedule also features home games against Nebraska, Penn State, and Wisconsin and road games at Purdue, Iowa and Northwestern. Minnesota is probably one year away from taking that next step, but they are no longer a team to overlook and likely headed to a second straight bowl game.