After a rocky last season in Dinkytown, head coach Tracy Claeys looks to restore the long-time winning culture once again at Minnesota.
The Gophers finished 6-7 in 2015 - in season that will be forever associated with the mid-season retirement of beloved head coach Jerry Kill for health reasons. On the field, Minnesota dealt with key injuries to their offensive and defensive line that really prevented things from taking shape to the capacity that many thought.
Minnesota also one of their toughest schedules in recent memory in 2015 as the Gophers had cross-over games against Michigan and Ohio State, plus they opened the season against an 11 win TCU team.
The nice thing for the Gophers heading into 2016 is on paper, their schedule is much easier as they lose TCU, Michigan and Ohio State (33-6 in 2015), and gain Oregon State, Rutgers and Maryland (9-27 in 2015). Throw in a senior quarterback in Mitch Leidner, a potential star running back in Shannon Brooks, plus one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, and Minnesota will be much improved and eight wins or more should be the expectation.
Minnesota needed a change on offense after ranking 10th in total offense (346.9 ypg) during Big Ten play and 10th in touchdowns with 22 total in eight games. That changed happened when head coach Tracy Claeys decided new to renew the contacts of quarterback's coach Jim Zebrowski and offensive coordinator / offensive line coach Matt Limegrover, and brought on Jay Johnson as his new offensive coordinator / quarterback's coach, and Bart Miller to work with the offensive line.
Four-year starter quarterback Mitch Leidner returns with 29 starts to his name and multiple NFL Draft analysts thinking he's a candidate for the 2017 NFL Draft. The senior was up and down in 2015, but nonetheless had a season for the record books in Gopher history finishing with the fifth highest completion percentage in a season, and the most passing yards and completions for a junior Gopher quarterback. The biggest question is if Leidner's offensive line can keep him healthy for a full season for the first time in his career, plus what weapons emerge in the passing game with KJ Maye now with the Giants.
The running back situations is bright for Minnesota with the Gophers returning sophomore's Shannon Brooks (709 rushing yards, 6.0 ypc average with seven touchdowns) and Rodney Smith (670 rushing yards, 4.3 ypc average with two touchdowns). Brooks and Smith will be intricate parts of Minnesota's rushing offense that'll try and get back into the top half of the Big Ten.
The wide receiver position has more questions than answers heading into 2016 as Minnesota loses their leading receiver in KJ Maye (73 receptions). Starters Drew Wolitarsky, Eric Carter and Rashad Still totaled 80 catches last fall, and one of the three needs to step up to help out quarterback Mitch Leidner. Minnesota does have one of the top tight ends in the conference coming back in junior Brandon Lingen who caught 33 balls for three touchdowns in 2015.
Offensive line play to me is the linchpin that'll ultimately most determine the success of Minnesota's 2016 season. The Gophers had persistent issues with the offensive line last year and after losing eight members from that 2015 squad, Minnesota has some work to do. Junior college additions Vincent Calhoun and Garrison Wright will have to play well right away for this line to gel and improve off 2015.
Defensive tackle looks to be a strength for Minnesota on defense this season as the Gophers return Steven Richardson, Andrew Stelter, Gary Moore, Scott Ekpe and gain JUCO All-American Merrick Jackson. Defensive end on the other hand is going to a position where defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel needs players to step up. Junior Gaelin Elmore headlines the group, but guys need to step up.
Mike Sherels' linebackers lose De'Vondre Campbell to the NFL, but return a lot of key contributors from last season in Jack Lynn, Cody Poock, Julian Huff and Jonathan Celestin among others. Also throw in guys like Nick Rallis and Jaylen Waters to have bigger roles this fall, plus Scout100 recruit Carter Coughlin to this group.
In the secondary, Minnesota loses two all-Big Ten corners to the NFL in Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, but Jay Sawvel's defensive backs always just reload with more talent. Jalen Myrick and KiAnte Hardin are the two likely starting corners, with underclassmen Ray Buford and Antonio Shenault also figuring in at corner. Damarius Travis coming off a torn hamstring will lead this group of DB's.
Replacing one of the best punters in Gopher Football history in Peter Mortell isn't going to be easy by any means, but it helps having a big leg like Ryan Santoso waiting in the wings. Santoso has only one punt in actual game action, but Claeys has said that Santoso will be the guy this fall.
Ryan also handled all of Minnesota's kickoff and field goal duties last fall, but it appears that walk-on sophomore Emmit Carpenter will now handle the shorter field gals (49 yards and in), while Santoso transitions to punting and kickoffs.
If it is anybody other than Leidner, Minnesota is likely in trouble. As a four-year starter, the quarterback has to take his game to the next level for the Gophers to improve on their 6-7 record from a year ago. Leidner showed more promise toward the end of the season and he needs the weapons around him and offensive line to take that leap to the next level for Minnesota.
Minnesota seems to always play a handful or more of true freshmen with Claeys at the helm, and one that should have a head start on the other freshmen is Scout.com's number 51 overall player with in-state linebacker Carter Coughlin. He's just too talented and has the versatility to play outside linebacker or rush defensive end, and for a time that lacks pass rush, Coughlin could be just what the doctor ordered.
2015 record: 6-7 (3-5 B1G)
2015 Final Rank: N/A
2015 Postseason: 21-14 victory over Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl
Starters Returning: 14 (eight on offense and six on defense)
Out: QB coach Jim Zebrowski (fired), OC/OL coach Matt Limegrover (fired)
In: QB/OC Jay Johnson, OL coach Bart Miller, DB coach Dan O'Brien