Despite some losses, the Gophers will be returning a ton of experienced, young talent that is already showcasing itself on the field.
One of the biggest reasons for optimism looking to coming years is along the offensive line. Ed Olson Jr is the only loss off a line that is finally performing at the levels fans and coaches thought it to be capable of. While Ed will be missed, he's been in and out of the lineup in his time as a Gopher due in large part to injuries.
There are two guys that have started games at left tackle this season that are back next year, one of which is a redshirt freshman. Right tackle Josh Campion is just a redshirt sophomore despite being 22 years old. John Christenson is just a redshirt sophomore this season so as long as he returns to form from his leg injury he will likley anchor the line for two more seasons. Redshirt sophomore Foster Bush got his first start against Penn State as redshirt junior Caleb Bak was out. Even with a somewhat patchwork offensive line, made up largely of underclassmen, the Gophers racked up 195 rushing yards.
Not only are the Gophers experienced with time to grow, they're also deep along the line. Two of the more highly touted recruits in recent years have yet to make major contributions but have been pushing for playing time. Isaac Hayes and Jonah Pirsig both redshirted last year and figure to be key factors down the road. Alex Mayes and younger brother Connor (who hasn't signed but it seems unlikely he doesn't end up in Maroon and Gold) also figure to be key cogs in the future and the Gophers also have a plethora of talented walk ons on the offensive line that could wind up being key players.
Not only is the development of the offensive line important for the running game, but it's huge for the development of sophomore QB Philip Nelson, who looks more and more like the QB Gopher fans and coaches thought he could be.
A large factor in Adam Weber's stagnation and possibly even regression over his time as a Gopher was that he was constantly under pressure. Weber never had a chance to get comfortable in the pocket in his time at the University of Minnesota and was unable to develop as he might have although the rotating door at coordinator was a large factor as well.
Not only does Nelson get what looks like will be at minimum a solid offensive line, but stability at coordinator as well. While Nelson will lose his top target next year in senior wide receiver, and former walk on, Derrick Engel, the Gopher's have had two freshman receivers step up as the season's progressed. Donovahn Jones, who started the year at QB, looks like a potential star in the making. Alongside Jones in the freshman wide receiver with tons of potential is Drew Wolitarsky. Gopher fans had high hopes for Wolitarsky who graduated with multiple California state high school receiving records. While Wolitarsky looked a bit lost earlier in the season he has begun to look more comfortable at wide receiver and has been getting good separation which has begun to translate into receptions.
Nelson will also have one more year of throwing the ball to Isaac Fruchte. Another one of Nelson's favorite targets as well as a favorite of fans, has three years left to strike fear in opposing defenses as Maxx Williams is just a redshirt Freshman this year. The Gopher's also have some nice weapons redshirting in RB Berkley Edwards, WR Eric Carter, and 6'9" TE Nate Wozniak.
Defensively the losses will be harder to replace moving forward, especially at OLB where depth is already a bit of an issue. The potential at OLB, even with the losses of starters Aaron Hill and James Manuel next season, is quite high, in part due to the potential of sophomore JUCO transfer De'Vondre Campbell who has struggled a bit in Big Ten play after getting off to a hot start. Nick Rallis figures to be the starter opposite Campbell next year unless someone else steps up at one of those outside linebacker spots.
The Gophers missed out on some very good prospects to schools such as LSU and South Carolina last year so the staff obviously has an eye for talent at that position so Deniro Laster, Chris Wipson, and Rayfield Dixon should not be slept on. Up front, Kill's recruits are already making a major impact as redshirt Sophomore Thieren Cockran leads the team in sacks with 6.5. Some other youngsters who have seen time along the defensive line are Alex Keith, Hank Ekpe, and Scott Ekpe. Demarius Peppers and Owen Salzwedel are a couple of guys with very high potential that are redshirting this year. Peppers remained committed to the University of Minnesota after Nebraska made a late push for his talents.
In the secondary the Gophers young talent is also making its presence known as sophomore Eric Murray was a key part in holding Penn State's Allen Robinson to just 63 yards on 7 receptions. Robinson came into the game averaging 130 yards per game. Jalen Myrick is another young corner that will be counted on in the coming years as some of the JUCO transfers and Brewster holdovers graduate. The safeties recruited by Kill's staff are also making their presence felt as Demarius Travis, Antonio Johnson, Cedric Thompson have all logged starts.
There will surely be growing pains and setbacks along the way, but this Gophers squad has shown resilience and sustained development on and off the field (if APR can be used to measure this). It's not likely that this staff will ever rake in a top recruiting class, but they also don't chase stars, which Tim Brewster proved was an ineffective method of building a program. This staff has a proven track record of turning programs around and they are quickly showing those that doubted they could succeed in a big time conference wrong. Even if this season's win total ends at eight, the momentum is going in the right direction for the Gopher football program.