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1. Who will step up on the defensive line?
This might be the biggest question for me entering the season. The Gophers lost a lot of experience from last year but they have guys waiting their turn to fill in. The question is, will they step up? From the tackle positions, the Gophers lose Nyles Pinckney, Micah Dew-Treadway, Rashad Cheney, and Val Martin. I think Trill Carter is ready for a big year and I am excited to see Logan Richter and Jacob Schuster get some playing time. From the defensive end positions, they lose two players who were drafted in the NFL: Boye Mafe (2nd round pick), and Esezi Otomewo (5th round pick). After Thomas Rush, it’s an open competition for snaps. I like Jah Joyner as a pass rusher. He showed some flashes in the bowl game. I expect to see Lorenza Surgers, Austin Booker, and Jalen Logan-Redding to get some playing time too. Minnesota will need several players to step up this fall on the defensive line.
- Who will start alongside John Michael Schmitz?
Did you know that the Gophers had one of the oldest and most-experienced offensive lines in the nation last year? If you didn’t, you didn’t watch any Gopher games as it was brought up every 10 minutes by TV commentators. The good news about this group? They return one of the best centers in college football in John Michael Schmitz, who has a chance to bring in some hardware like no other Gopher center has done since Greg Eslinger. The question mark is the people alongside him as he will have four new starters next to him when the Gophers take on New Mexico State on September 1st. Minnesota knew this was the case as they were aggressive in the transfer portal. They brought in Chuck Filiaga from Michigan, who started a few games and played 39 total games for the Wolverines. They also brought in Edina native Quinn Carroll from Notre Dame who will be joining the team in the fall. Axel Ruschmeyer should start at guard and should bring fans some comfort as he has plenty of experience and talent for the job. The other starter? That is the question mark. Martes Lewis, JJ Guedet, and Aireontae Ersery will be in the mix well. Can the line block well enough for their offensive weapons to do damage?
- How will the offense be with a new/old offensive coordinator?
Kirk Ciarrocca is back in charge of the offensive after leaving the program two years ago. During his time with the Gophers from 2017-2019, Ciarrocca coordinated some of the best offenses in Minnesota history, including the record-breaking 2019 season. In 2019, the Gophers’ offense produced two 1,000-yard receivers (Johnson and Bateman) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Rodney Smith). P.J Fleck brought back his friend after the offense took a step back with Mike Sanford Jr. at the helm. He has plenty of weapons to work with in Autman-Bell, Spann-Ford, Wright, Ibrahim, and Potts. The biggest question mark lies in its most important player on offense, Quarterback Tanner Morgan. Tanner broke multiple school records in 2019 that would lead him to be named All-Big Ten Second team and a finalist for The Manning Award and a semifinalist for the Davey O-Brien Award. The last two years haven’t been a nightmare for Tanner but no doubt he thrived more under Ciarrocca compared to Sanford Jr. Can Kirk replicate the offense we saw in 2019? Probably not, but something close to it will do the job.
- How will Ibrahim and Potts respond from last year?
As it stands, the top two running backs on the depth chart heading into this season played a total of six games last season. Ibrahim had 163 yards against Ohio State in the season opener before he suffered an Achilles injury that ended his season. Potts played five games before he suffered an undisclosed injury against Purdue that would cause him to be hospitalized for almost a week. With Bucky Irving, Ky Thomas, and Cam Wiley transferring in the off-season, the depth of the running back room isn’t quite as strong as it once was. Even though fans are excited for Zach Evans to get some carries, the success of the season will rely heavily on a healthy Ibrahim and Potts. The good news is that both are cleared for contact heading into the fall. Minnesota will no doubt have one of the best running back duos in the conference if both can stay healthy.
- Will Minnesota find consistency in the kicking game?
Since Emmit Carpenter left the program in 2018, Minnesota has had five players attempt to kick field goals. FIVE. Now, I know it’s hard to follow up a guy who left the U with the highest conversion rate in school history (79.1%) but it has been the definition of a struggle for Minnesota to find a guy to be consistent in the kicking game. Minnesota hoped that All-MAC First team and Special Teams Player of the Year Matthew Trickett was the answer when he transferred to Minnesota from Kent State. Last year, Trickett was 36 of 38 in extra points and was 17 for 25 in field goals, which is 68%. He was 4 for 6 on-field goals that were 30 yards or less. Minnesota added Ball State transfer Jacob Lewis to challenge Trickett this fall. In 2021, Lewis made 10 of 13 field goals, with a long of 49 yards. He also had 13 touchbacks on 39 kickoffs. Can Minnesota find consistency in the kicking game this year?