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2016 Fierce 40 Previews: #36 Minnesota

by DJ Boyer on Jul. 8, 2016

#36 Minnesota Golden Gophers

2015 Recap:
Minnesota was another one of the 5-7 squads that was invited to a Bowl Game and they actually came through with a 21-14 win over Central Michigan after a late 13-yard touchdown scamper by quarterback Mitch Leidner. Minnesota was one of the youngest football teams in the Big Ten as they were visably laying the groundwork for 2016 and beyond.


Coaching:
After spending 20 years coaching defensive lines and acting as a defensive coordinator, Tracy Claeys got the keys to The Golden Gophers. Claeys took over for friend Jerry Kill who had spent much of the last three years battling issues with seizures that left him away from the team from time to time. Claeys went 2-4 down the stretch but the victory over Central Michigan stopped a seven game bowl drought for the school. Jay Sawvel will lead the defense while Jay Johnson has been named as the new offensive coordinator.


Offense

Yes Minnesota has their quarterback listed as a draft prospect but make no mistake, the stats for Mitch Leidner will not blow you away. First of all we know he led a team with a losing record and his 14-11 touchdown/INT ratio is not going to wow scouts. Leidner can move on his feet, make the right decisions and he has a ton of experience. With the talent at quarterback you would expect the new offensive coordinator to turn things loose but I would expect just the opposite. In the Big Ten you need a ground game and you can look at Minnesota and their performance a season ago for evidence. When the Golden Gophers hit the magical 150 yard mark as a team on the ground they were 5-0. When Minnesota failed to hit this number, 1-7. Proof is in the pudding folks and with Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith leading the backfield, Minnesota has the talent to compete. The duo had 1,418 yards and 9 rushing touchdowns between them in 2015, when they were both freshman (remember what I said about Minnesota being a young team last year). Both also display capable hands and are nice safety valvues for Leidner and the offense. Jonah Pirsig seems to be the most viable draft prospect on offense for 2017 and it helps when you are 6'9" 325 pounds.
 

Best Draft Prospects: Mitch Leidner QB 6th Round 2017.

                                       Jonah Pirsig OT 4th Round 2017.


Defense

The defense was good but not great in 2015. Seems like the bend-but-don't break philiosophy backfired as Minnesota failed to stop teams consistently at the end of halves. The Ekpe brothers will be key up front with Scott and Hendrick looking to improve upon the run defense. Scott was a missing component in 2015 as he watched from the sidelines with a leg injury. De'Vondre Campbell did everything for the Golden Gophers in 2015 and was one of the most versitile defenders in the entire conference. Campbell has since moved on to the greener pastures of the NFL. Jack Lynn will now be asked to not only lead the Gophers statistically but provide much needed leadership on the field and in the huddle. The secondary continues to excel and be the bright spot of the defense even after losing both starting corners to the NFL Draft in April. Jalen Myrick steps in and would have started on virtually half of the Big Ten teams last year but he was a valuable nickel componenet on the defense. Damarius Travis is the rising star of the defense, a role he was poised for last season but got injured after only 1 game. Look for Travis to be a popular choice on a number of Big Ten conference teams at seasons end.

Best Draft Prospects: Damarius Travis S 5rd Round 2017.

                                       Jalen Myrick CB 4th Round 2017.


Special Teams:

Another area where Minnesota seems to excel on a consistent basis and it looks like more of the same in 2016. Placekicker Ryan Santoso is on the preseason Lou Groza watch list and at 6'5" 250 pounds he is more like an extra linebacker on kickoffs. Santoso was 17-21 in field goal conversions last year and didn't miss a field goal under 44 yards. Minnesota will miss Peter Mortell at punter though he didn't quite have the season many were expecting. A full time punter has yet to be named at the time this article was published. Minnesota ranked near the bottom of the conference in the return game as was dead last in returning punts, those numbers need to improve.


Schedule:

The first road test for Minnesota comes in week 4 with a trip to Happy Valley to take on Penn State. Week 6 is the next road matchup with Maryland. These first six are games that Minnesota has a legitimate chance at winning, every single one. If Minnesota starts 6-0 or 5-1 we could witness them pulling a 2015 Iowa all the way to the Conference Championship Game...stranger things have happened. This is a very favorable schedule.

Draft and Overall Outlook:

We don't see any first or second day slam dunks although Jonah Pirsig could be in high demand with a solid senior campaign. Minnesota looks like a team stocked with day three draft picks and with the favorable schedule this is a team that can make some noise. The wildcard here is the new coaching regime and how Minnesota and their players respond to the new styles and faces.

DJ Boyer