July 8, 2021: The Gophers’ 2021-22 season kicks off in only 56 days, as they’re set to host the Ohio State Buckeyes, I thought there was no better time to look at three potential breakout stars for the Maroon & Gold this season.
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Some casual fans might expect players like Chris Autman-Bell, Boye Mafe or Daniel Jackson to break out; while I do think that could be the case on a national stage, most diehard fans already realize how special of players they already are. My criteria today was choosing three players that are going into their first season with the Gophers, and they could be in line for a serious role in 2021.
- Position: cornerback
- Year: true-freshman
- Previous school: D’Iberville High School (MS)
Justin Walley committed to the University of Minnesota about a year ago in August. As a three-star prospect according to 247sports, he chose the Gophers over top SEC offers from Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The 5-foot-11 DB clearly made an impression early since arriving in Minnesota, as he seemed to have a serious role at May’s Spring Game and an open practice in mid-April. It is setting up to be the perfect storm for Walley — with Benjamin St. Juste off to the NFL and defensive back being one of the team’s weakest positions a season ago, he has had every chance to carve out a serious role this offseason. I think there is a serious chance we see Walley right in the middle of the team’s cornerback rotation right away with seniors Terell Smith and Philip Howard on the opposite side of Coney Durr. We will likely not see him start initially, but I would be shocked if we don’t see him get meaningful snaps early in the season, and I would not be surprised if he solidifies himself as the No. 2 CB by season’s end. He even took snaps on offense as a hybrid RB/WR as well as reps as a punt returner this offseason, so I think we may see the MS native on the field in more ways than one this season.
- Position: defensive tackle
- Year: graduate-senior
- Previous school: Clemson
Nyles Pinckney was the Gophers’ prized jewel of the offseason. The former Clemson defensive lineman transferred to Minnesota after a four-year career with the Tigers where he played 55 games totaling over 1,100 career snaps, recording 93 tackles (10.5 for loss), 2.0 sacks, one forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries and earning third-team All-ACC in 2019. The former four-star recruit out of high school comes to a Gophers team that has serious talent within the interior defensive line position. DeAngelo Carter, Micah Dew-Treadway, Val Martin and possibly Rashad Cheny Jr. will all have a role with this team, so it will be far from a one-man show with Pinckney. If you look across all levels of football, depth along the defensive line has been very consistent with every successful team. Pinckney’s high-level potential and experience competing on the biggest stage brings this part of Minnesota’s defense from good to great. He will certainly not be the only man, but he will play a large part in the Gophers’ defensive turnaround this season.
- Position: wide receiver
- Year: redshirt-sophomore
- Previous school: Texas A&M
If Pinckney was the prized jewel of the Gophers’ offseason, Dylan Wright was a close second. One of the biggest questions this offseason has been the outlook for Minnesota’s WR3 position. Clay Geary and Mike Brown-Stephens return, while true-freshman Brady Boyd and Lemeke Brockington arrive. One man that stands out over the rest is former four-star recruit and Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright. Amidst this offseason, it has been tough for the Dylan Wright hype-train to completely take off, as he has struggled to make a serious impact after sitting out of May’s Spring game, but there is no telling what he is showing behind closed doors. The talent is certainly there and it is up to him to make an impact for this team. He was an Under Armour All-American coming out of high school but failed to record a single reception with the Aggies. He will have three seasons of eligibility remaining with the Gophers, so it does not need to happen right away.
I think that Wright could be the wild card of the season for Minnesota, I would not be shocked if his role was minimal in 2021, as Geary and Brown-Stephens have been more than formidable No. 3 options, but they are not as talented as Wright plain and simple. If Wright is able to put it all together in 2021, he could be what takes the Gophers’ passing attack and offense as a whole from good to great.