2017 Big Ten Preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

By Dan Smith on August 28, 2017 at 8:30 am
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck addresses the media during the Big Ten football media day at Hyatt Regency McCormick Place.

Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

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Minnesota being Minnesota, you may have forgotten how tumultuous their offseason was. After 10 players were suspended in December from an investigation into an alleged sexual assault, the remaining players on the Golden Gophers announced a boycott of their Holiday Bowl matchup with Washington State. First-year head coach Tracy Claeys announced his support of the boycott, and was subsequently fired shortly after Minnesota's win over Wazzu.

With the players still feeling wronged by the investigation, the firing of Claeys compounded the already bitter relationship between the school and the football team, with players threatening to transfer. But the hiring of Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck, arguably the hottest young name in coaching, Minnesota seems to have avoided a meltdown.

Fleck was a revelation at Western Michigan, going from 1-11 in his first season (2013) to 13-1 in 2016, with the only loss being to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. The 36-year-old Fleck is a fiery personality who has endeared himself to his players at every step in his young career. Minnesota is a different type of challenge than Western Michigan, but he will have significantly increased resources at his disposal on the recruiting trail.

Minnesota at a glance

Head Coach P.J. Fleck (1st season)
2016 Record 9-4 (5-4 Big Ten)
2016 Postseason Won Holiday Bowl 17-12 vs. Washington State
Biggest Losses QB Mitch Leidner, WR Drew Wolitarsky, CB Jalen Myrick, S Damarius Travis, LB Jack Lynn, OT Jonah Pirsig
Biggest Returnees RB Rodney Smith, RB Shannon Brooks, LB Jonathan Celestin, S Duke McGhee, LB Blake Cashman, K Emmitt Carpenter
Summary Decently talented and in a weak division, but a new coach, two new QBs, and a lot of reliance on young/unproven players.
Matchup with PSU n/a

Offense

The Golden Gophers' tendency to run a grind-it-out offensive style syncs up with what we saw of Fleck's system at Western Michigan. The rushing attack will be spearheaded by junior running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. (You may remember Brooks from his game-tying 27-yard touchdown run against Penn State in 2016 that put that game in doubt.) Smith, meanwhile, had 23 receptions out of the backfield, more than any returning receiver on the team.

They'll likely lean heavily on Brooks and Smith with the departures of quarterback Mitch Leidner and number one receiver Drew Wolitarsky. Fleck did not commit to a starter at quarterback, saying that senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft will both play in the opener against Buffalo. Two-quarterback systems have an ugly history in college football, but Fleck appears willing to rock the boat in addition to rowing it.

Tight end Brandon Lingen returns from a mess of injuries that held him out in 2016. Wide receiver Rashad Still flashed big play ability last season but will need to emerge from Wolitarsky's shadow more consistent. He was targeted 39 times in 2016 and made just 19 catches.

Defense

Minnesota has an experienced pair of tackles in seniors Steven Richardson and Andrew Stelter, and linebackers Blake Cashman and Jonathan Celestin worked well with them as playmakers. But the rest of the front-seven is made up largely of inexperienced young players who remain unknown quantities. There is potential in sophomores like Winston DeLattiboudere, but nothing can be counted on as of yet.

In the secondary, the losses of cornerback Jalen Myrick and safety Damarius Travis will be felt. Corner Antonio Shenault and safety Duke McGhee will be the steadying presences on the back end.

Special Teams

Emmit Carpenter is one of the best kickers in the country; in 2016, he hit all 10 field goals he attempted outside of 40 yards. But the return game has been gutted, with Myrick in the NFL and KiAnte Hardin expelled from the school. They will need to start from scratch here to match the excellent special teams production they saw last season.

2017 Outlook

Minnesota is coming off a 9-4 season, but they have lost some significant pieces and have a new coaching staff. It is a transitional year, albeit a nontraditional one. That said, they have talent, they have coaches who have succeeded quickly elsewhere, and they play in a weak Big Ten West. Don't be surprised to see the Golden Gophers make some noise in 2017.

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