Ryan Burns - GopherDigest

Gophers Fall Primer: Offensive Skill Positions

The Minnesota Golden Gophers start football practice for the 2016 season in earnest on Friday. Here is a look ahead at what to expect on the offensive side of the ball in head coach Jay Johnson’s first season at Minnesota.



Mitch Leidner is without a doubt going to go down as one of the most polarizing figures in recent memory for Gopher Football fans. Leidner will graduate following this upcoming season, his fourth straight year as the starter and there's zero question he's going to be "the guy" for this Minnesota offense. Mitch will likely go onto finish as the Gophers career completion percentage leader and will be in the top five in many other passing categories. If this is the year that Leidner actually stays healthy for a majority of the season, watch out. Fans should have high expectations for Mitch and this passing game this fall. 


True sophomore Demry Croft received all of the No. 2 reps last fall and this spring, which ultimately should lead you to believe that the staff believes he's the back-up going forward. While Conor Rhoda may have been more consistent during practice this last spring, it's clear from the reps that Croft received that he's still the guy coming in behind Mitch. I said last fall that Croft has the most natural quarterback talent on the roster and I think he and Mitch still hold those distinctions. New quarterback's coach Jay Johnson spent most of the spring with Croft rebuilding his mechanics and I associate that the most with Croft's inconsistency during this most recent spring season. From talking with sources, Johnson is still very high on Croft and he should be viewed as the number two quarterback heading into the fall.


Redshirt sophomore Conor Rhoda put himself in the conversation to be the Gophers backup quarterback after a consistent spring. Rhoda is more agile than given credit for, and he's among the most accurate quarterbacks the Gophers have. Where Leidner and Croft have Rhoda beat is in the athleticism department where traditionally, in a Jay Johnson offense, the quarterback has to be a dual threat with his legs and arm. Rhoda is nonetheless still a dependable backup quarterback. 


Expectations are through the roof for 2016 four-star early enrollee quarterback Seth Green as he's the highest ranked quarterback commit in the Claeys era, and he's formerly of East Ridge high school in Woodbury, so fans have high expectations. My response to that would be to say remain patient. Green is a very athletic quarterback at all of 6'4" and 225 lbs, but he's still a work in progress and will be for another year or two. Jay Johnson was working on Green's mechanics throughout spring ball, and Green like most other freshmen, has to keep getting bigger and stronger. Athletically, Green is what you want a dual-threat quarterback to be, but he needs a couple years to keep developing. 


Freshman Mark Williams is the quarterback that new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson targeted as his quarterback for the 2016 class (Seth Green was already signed and on campus), and on tape Williams looks he has a bright future for the Gophers. Williams is a mobile quarterback who has a cannon for an arm, and it looks like Minnesota may have stolen one from Alabama. I fully expect Williams to redshirt this fall, but I'm intrigued to see him in person during fall camp.

Projected 2016 depth chart

  1. Mitch Leidner
  2. Demry Croft
  3. Conor Rhoda

Running Back

What the Gophers have on roster


If you're going to talk about Gopher running backs for the upcoming season, you have to start with sophomore Shannon Brooks. The Georgia native averaged almost six yards a carry (5.95 ypc) on 119 attempts and scored seven touchdowns, and when received more than 14 carries a game, Brooks averaged 125 yards on the ground and 1.25 rushing touchdowns. Shannon is one of the most physical runners I've seen in a long time as he loves to head into contact, and he's very good at excelling through the contact to gain extra yards. My expectations for Brooks on his upcoming sophomore year are very high. I expect Brooks to be the "bell cow" back for Minnesota and receive anywhere from 17-20 carries a game for all 13 games. No reason that Brooks shouldn't be a 1000 rusher for the Gophers this fall.


Not to be forgotten about, fellow Georgia sophomore Rodney Smith is also coming off a productive freshman season. Smith ended his 2015 campaign with 670 rushing yards at a 4.26 ypc clip, and scored two rushing touchdowns. Where Rodney really excels is in the passing game and his vision. Within Jay Johnson's new offense, I can absolutely envision Smith on some middle screens of wheel routes out of the backfield as Smith has very good hands and make defenders miss in space. Smith also excels at reading his blockers and knowing where the hole is going to be, and not necessarily is right now. I think Smith will definitely still be in the rotation with Brooks this fall, but he may see seven to ten carries a game instead of the 12 he averaged last season. Smith is still going to be a large part of the Gopher offense and going to be a major factor in the passing game.


The star of the Gophers spring game was redshirt freshman James Johannesson who rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown. Johannesson may be one of Minnesota's most improved players on offense after this past spring, as the physical talent has always been there, but the true adjustment has been the speed of the game. Going from Fargo football to Big Ten caliber players is going to be a bit of an adjustment for any player, and Johannesson received a bulk of the load this spring with his fellow teammates nursing various injuries. For James to take the next step, he just needs to keep playing. The more he's able to adjust to the speed of the game while improving his vision and lateral ability, the more of a threat for playing time he'll become.


Redshirt freshman Jonathan Femi-Cole will be a power back for Minnesota when he eventually steps onto the field. The former Canadian star has to keep working on his durability and his pad level, while maintaining his physical prowess. 


Bulter Community College running back Kobe McCrary is going to be an interesting guy to watch this fall with the departure of former big back Rodrick Williams. McCrary was a productive runner while at Butler CC and he's a big guy at 6'1" 230 lbs. I could see a scenario where if Brooks, Smith and McCrary get snaps on the Gophers offense this fall, and McCrary will also provide depth on special teams as well. That being said, you don't bring in a JUCO running back to sit on the bench, so McCrary will get his shot this fall.

Projected 2016 depth chart

  1. Shannon Brooks
  2. Rodney Smith
  3. Kobe McCrary

Wide receiver


The guy who may have the most on his plate coming up to try and replace what KJ Maye had in production last season for Minnesota is senior Drew Wolitarsky. Drew was one yard away from becoming a part of one of the most iconic plays of the Gophers season in 2015 with his catch against Michigan on the one yard line. The signature game for Wolitarsky last season was his coming out party against Colorado State where he had nine receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown, and Drew finished the season with 39 catches for 524 yards. Now with Maye gone, Drew is the leader of this wide receiver group and with Leidner looking for a new top target, Wolitarsky could be that guy as he is the most established of the group.


As a true freshman last season, Rashad Still burst onto the scene with two standout games against Michigan (two receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown) and Ohio State (six catches for 41 yards and a touchdown). Now coming back into his sophomore year, Still may have the highest ceiling of all the Gophers wide receivers currently on the roster. The El Paso native has a giant 6'5" frame with great length and knows how to go up and high point the ball. For Still to take the next step this fall, he's got to work on getting off press coverage and creating separation early, plus he needs to keep getting stronger and developing his route tree, but the potential is surely there. 


Junior Eric Carter came into Minnesota as one of the most highly recruited player of the 2012 class with offers from Mizzou, Purdue, Iowa State and Cincinnati among others, and finally saw the field last season ending up with 23 receptions. Carter and former Gopher KJ Maye are very much of the same mold physically, and the Gophers hope he can double his production from last season. Carter has some of the surest hands on the team.


Holland kicks off a group of younger receivers that all have the potential to see a lot of playing time this fall. After redshirting in 2014, Holland Jr. played in eight games last fall and I could absolutely see a scenario where he catches 25+ balls this fall. Holland struggled with some drops this past spring, and while I believe he may be one of the most talented receivers on the roster, he just needs to get his confidence back with his hands. That's easily fixable and just requires a strong fall camp, so Holland could be the one to break out this fall.


Sophomore Isaiah Gentry may be one of the most tantalizing players on the roster. Gopher fans see flashes of ability against Ohio where he accelerates past defenders for a big gain, but then Gentry misses most of the remainder of the season with injuries. Gentry battled injuries again this spring, and if he can just stay healthy for an entire season, he could be a factor. 


Register redshirted this past season and looks to have put more muscle on this last spring. For Hunter to take that next step, he's got to continue to develop his route tree and explosiveness out of his cuts.


One walk-on to watch will be redshirt freshman Adam Mayer who drew praise from the coaches and players during the fall and spring of this past season. Mayer is a tough guy in the interior of the field and is usually sure handed with his catches.


In-state wide receiver Drew Hmielewski is one of the most athletically gifted players from Minnesota's 2016 class and if he's healthy, should have a chance to play this fall. Word is that Hmielewski may have to have miss some time though with an existing injury.


2016 wide receiver signee Phillip Howard has the athletic ability to play right away, but he's going to have to show he's durable enough to be a Big Ten wide receiver and that he's a quick learner with his route tree, as Howard played quarterback in high school.


Johnson is another that has a chance to play this fall with all the uncertainty at wide receiver. The Minneapolis North product had one of the most productive seasons in the history of Minnesota football and showed well at an all-star game in California in January.

Projected 2016 Depth Chart


  1. Rashad Still
  2. Hunter Register / Isaiah Gentry


  1. Drew Wolitarsky
  2. Melvin Holland


  1. Eric Carter
  2. Phillip Howard / Adam Mayer

Tight End


Minnesota's undisputed leader of the tight end group is junior Brandon Lingen, and he's already catching the eye of NFL Scout's. Lingen will be relied upon heavily this fall with the departure of KJ Maye, and it'd be no surprise if the Wayzata native ended up leading Minnesota in targets in 2016. Lingen has taken a step forward during each season he's played, and now that he's an upperclassman, GopherDigest is expecting another leap forward this fall. Lingen is coming off of shoulder surgery, but is expected to be ready for fall camp. Lingen also has the versatility to play H-back or be an end of the line of scrimmage Y.


Redshirt junior tight end Nate Wozniak was forced into significant action last fall after injuries to Lincoln Plsek and Duke Anyanwu, but Wozniak was up to the challenge. The role that Woz fills is one that'll never get enough attention or recognition, but he's the 6th glorified offensive lineman continually setting the edge for Minnesota's rushing attack. Gophers will need Wozniak to really stay healthy this fall, as they don't have a true back-up for Wozniak at that Y position.


Redshirt freshman Colton Beebe has yet to take a single college snap for the Golden Gophers, but he's going to be expected to be a "swiss-army knife" guy of sorts for this group. Beebe is big enough to be a Y tight end for Minnesota at 6'2" 260 lbs, but he's also athletic enough to be an H-back and meet a defender in the hole, and catch a ball in the flats out of the backfield. The future looks very bright for the young Kansas native.


Prior Lake native Nick Hart is also going to have to play a role within this tight end group heading into 2016. Minnesota only has a handful of bodies at the position, and Hart has shown that he can be effective when called upon as he had key catches against Colorado State, Ohio and Wisconsin last fall. Hart at the very least will be called upon for special teams.


Grand Rapids native Bryce Witham also looks to be shaping into a Big Ten tight end after a redshirt season in 2015. Witham showed flashes during spring ball, and with the lack of guys at the position, Witham is another guy that at the very least, will be on special teams for the Gophers.


I truly hope for a full recovery for redshirt junior tight end Duke Anyanwu, but after his third knee surgery in four years, I just don't think Anyanwu can return to his old, explosive self of fall camp 2014. Anyanwu, because of these knee injuries, hasn't see the field since 2013.


Incoming Iowa native Ko Kieft is a player that tight ends coach Rob Reeves really fell in love with at Minnesota's camp this past July, and Minnesota is excited to get working with him here in a few weeks. I do expect Kieft to redshirt this fall.

Projected 2016 depth chart


  1. Brandon Lingen
  2. Colton Beebe
  3. Bryce Witham


  1. Nate Wozniak
  2. Nick Hart
  3. Colton Beebe

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