COLUMN: Gophers played like a TD underdog, Is Athan Kaliakmanis the guy? + Freshmen continue to standout

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Just like that, we are already three weeks into the 2023 college football season. Minnesota is 2-1 and every realistic preseason expectation is still in front of them. While another marquee matchup loss is certainly disappointing, Gophers fans need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. This team is starting an inexperienced QB and as many as 4-5 freshmen getting meaningful snaps. P.J. Fleck still has the program in a spot that it has not been in quite some time.

Gophers have met season expectations thus far:

The Gophers entered 2023 with a preseason win total of 7 according to most sportsbooks and they had the third-best odds to win the Big Ten West. Through three weeks of football, those expectations are virtually unchanged. While they’ve yet to cover the spread in any of the first three games, Minnesota has performed at expectation. Disappointment and criticism can certainly still be warranted, but calling for wholesale coaching changes is borderline blasphemous at this point of the season.

As it pertains to Saturday afternoon against North Carolina, there really was nothing that shocked me in that game. Minnesota’s defense played like one of the better units in the country, but Drake Maye played like one of the best QBs in the country. The Gophers relied on the defense to bail them out of the game and make plays, ultimately costing them in the end. They played like a P.J. Fleck-led Gophers team, solid defense + solid running game and a struggling QB that limits your offensive potential — same team different personnel.

Is Athan Kaliakmanis still the guy?:

Like most Gophers fans, I had high expectations for Athan Kaliakmanis this season. Capping last year’s regular season with a 19/29, 319-yard, 2 TD performance on the road against Wisconsin, proved to me that he is more than capable of being a high-end starter in the Big Ten Conference. This season he has not looked like the same player we all saw in that game. Completing 51.1% of his passes on the season for 148.6 yards per game is not the high-end play from the position that many had hoped for preseason.

He has still only started nine career football games, but the clock is ticking. As we do look back, Tanner Morgan’s legendary 2019 season was when he was a redshirt sophomore, the game grade as Athan this season. Outside of the Wisconsin game and the first half of the Bowl Game last season, last week’s win against EMU was Athan’s first game with a completion percentage of more than 60.0, that is 3/9 of his career starts with a 60.0+ completion percentage.

Anyone who has watched him play can quickly see that the skill is certainly there and much different than past Gophers’ QBs, and every Gophers fan obviously wants him to succeed, but he simply has not done it consistently. Being that you’re still 2-1 and every preseason expectation is in front of you, I believe the Gophers should not have a QB change… yet.

With two new WRs from the transfer portal, an All-Conference TE, a 7th-year veteran WR and a potential NFL option with Daniel Jackson, to go along with a new offensive system, everything has been put in place for Athan to succeed. The fans want him to succeed, the coaches want him to succeed and his teammates want him to succeed. Like I said, I believe this two-game stretch of Northwestern and Louisiana will be good for Athan to settle in, but it’s time to stop talking about it and do it now.

Freshmen continue to standout:

One positive of Saturday’s game with North Carolina was the continued success from freshmen of the 2023 and 2022 classes. Darius Taylor had over 150+ yards from scrimmage for the second straight game and it’s pretty obvious how special of a talent he already is. But OL Greg Johnson appeared in the game, as the first Gophers true freshman offensive lineman to see the field since Daniel Faalele. On top of that, redshirt freshmen DL Anthony Smith, LB Maverick Baranowski, CB Tariq Watson and S Aidan Gousby continue to see meaningful snaps on the defensive side of the football.

While it hasn’t always been pretty, it is a great positive to see much young talent playing. This season was always meant to be building for 2024. The question was always how much of a build it would have to be. 2024 is meant to be the window for this roster and having so much freshmen talent makes it still a very exciting time to be a Gophers football fan.

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