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A Closer Look at the Gophers' Returning Production

07/16/2019, 3:30pm CDT
By Daniel House


After seeing growth from young players last season, the Gophers have an opportunity to continue building upon a promising 2018 campaign. In future seasons, Minnesota will start to reap the benefits associated with immediately thrusting underclassmen into key roles. The preliminary returns will likely begin this year and extend into 2020. 

The Gophers have the fourth-most returning offensive production (90%) in the country, according to Bill Connelly’s data. On the other side of the ball, 66% of their total defensive production is returning, which ranks 61st nationally. Overall, Minnesota ranks tenth nationally with 78 percent of its total production remaining in Dinkytown, per Connelly’s data. 

When analyzing all 119 players currently on the Gophers’ roster, 69 percent will be underclassmen this season. After sifting the roster down to key contributors and eliminating walk-ons, the underclassmen percentage reaches 80 percent. Minnesota’s roster will still feature young players, but many of them gained valuable experience last season. Last year, 51.7 percent of the Gophers’ roster was comprised of true freshmen. Many of them saw extended action, especially during the final half of 2018. 

When breaking down the participation charts, there were moments where Minnesota had eight freshmen playing prominent roles in the offensive system. This year, they will start to notice the benefits of developing a roster through recruiting cycles. Teams who tend to patch their roster with more transfers, seem to impact their ability to quickly develop long-term program stability. It might take a few seasons to see all of the rewards, but proper player development can change a program’s trajectory faster than anyone (even coaches) can anticipate. 

P.J. Fleck and his staff have always favored building their teams with high school athletes. In the past, when asked about his roster construction approach, Fleck said it's important to, “never sacrifice what you really want down the road for what you really want right now.”

When looking at the returning production through the lens of Minnesota’s future FBS opponents, you’ll notice the Gophers feature some of the most overall continuity. If key underclassmen take the next step, the team will benefit from having early experience in the system. As you’ll notice below, among Minnesota’s 2019 opponents, Fresno State has the lowest returning production. They lost starting quarterback Marcus McMaryion, top wide receiver Keesean Johnson and three key offensive linemen. Top defensive players, including linebacker Jeffrey Allison and safety Mike Bell departed, but safety JuJu Hughes and linebacker Mykal Walker return. Overall, only UAB has a lower returning production percentage than Fresno State. No matter what, with head coach Jeff Tedford's ability to develop talent, a road game in Fresno will be a challenge. 

Out of the Gophers’ non-conference opponents, Georgia Southern has the most experience on their depth chart. The Eagles run more of a shotgun triple option than they used to. It’s essentially a hybrid gun-pistol look with occasional under-center looks. Last year, with long-time New Mexico offensive coordinator Bob Debesse’s influence, they added more Air Raid concepts, tossed 116 passes and pushed things back to the gun. In this system, they heavily vary the tempo and test the conditioning of defenses. Georgia Southern finished seventh in total rushing last year, but they were dead last nationally in total plays per game (59.4). This is due to the fact they popped off many explosive plays and cranked up the tempo. Mental errors can be costly against this type of offense, especially if you don’t maintain discipline and execute your assignments. Minnesota will greatly benefit from scheming for Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense last year, but Bob Debesse also has plenty of film to study for trends. It’s still worth marveling at how prepared the Gophers were for the triple-option last December. The emphasis upon varying packages, including 5-3, 3-4, 4-3 and 4-4 looks, kept Georgia Tech on its heels the entire day. 

In addition to the FBS opponents, Minnesota’s season-opener is a matchup with South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits have appeared in back-to-back FCS Semifinal games and feature a dynamic rushing attack returning. Running back Pierre Strong rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year and is complemented well by both Mikey Daniel and C.J. Wilson. Not only that, but five key receivers, including junior Cade Johnson are returning. Johnson accumulated 1,332 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns last year. Following the graduation of Taryn Christion, the biggest question mark is at the quarterback position. Will redshirt freshmen J’Bore Gibbs and Matt Connors compete for the starting job? Even with familiar options, Arizona State transfer Kurt Walding may emerge as a front-runner. Defensively, the Jackrabbits return nearly the entire front-seven, but feature youth in the secondary, especially after the loss of cornerback Jordan Brown, one of the FCS’ best defensive backs. 

The non-conference slate will set the tone for this season. If Minnesota can start Big Ten play with a 3-0 record, they have a favorable first half conference schedule, including home redemption opportunities against Illinois and Nebraska. Five of the Gophers’ first six Big Ten games are against opponents ranking between 70th and 103rd in returning production. Not to mention, four of those teams have a little more than 50 percent of their total production returning. Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue each added top-25 recruiting classes to help bridge the gap, but will still have youth adjusting to the next level. 

If the Gophers get off to a quick start in the first nine games, they could create a compelling final portion of the season. Road games against Iowa and Northwestern, along with a home finale against Wisconsin could determine the final destination of 2019. 

The Biggest Offensive Question Mark

On offense, just three upperclassmen are projected to start for the Gophers, including offensive lineman Conner Olson, running back Rodney Smith and either tackle Jason Dickson or Sam Schlueter. The offensive depth chart is filled with underclassmen that received valuable experience last year.

Entering the season, left tackle is arguably the biggest offensive question mark. With the departure of Donnell Greene, will junior college Jason Dickson emerge as a viable left tackle candidate? If not, the Gophers may start Sam Schlueter or try a new combination. Left guard Blaise Andries could move to left tackle and Conner Olson would shift back to guard. In this scenario, redshirt sophomore John Michael-Schmitz may handle starting center duties. It’s too early to tell what the offensive line combination will look like, but it’s an important area to solidify in fall camp. 

At the running back position, there is a plethora of talent on the depth chart. Between four top running backs (Smith, Brooks, Ibrahim and Williams), the team returns 1,328 career carries, 6,503 yards and 52 touchdowns. There are ways to get multiple running backs on the field, but Minnesota’s coaching staff will find ways to divide carries. This is also arguably the deepest wide receiver depth chart the Gophers have fielded in quite some time. Senior Tyler Johnson returns, along with sophomores Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas. The ability to mix Jake Paulson and Brevyn Spann-Ford into packages leaves offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca with scheme flexibility. 

Defensive Experience and Question Mark 

When flipping to the defense, six of Minnesota’s 11 projected defensive starters are upperclassmen. The unit also features three senior leaders in the front-seven, including Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber. The Gophers will be relying upon a handful of underclassmen, but every single projected starter has at least a little collegiate experience. The biggest question mark defensively is within the interior. In the past cycle, Minnesota added Notre Dame graduate transfer Micah Dew-Treadway and junior college transfer Keonte Schad. True freshmen Rashad Cheney Jr. and DeAngelo Carter will help in the future and may earn playing time on a rotational basis. Carter is one of my favorite players in the entire 2019 recruiting class and more people should be talking about him. He moves well, is explosive off the snap, features a long wingspan and plays extremely hard. In addition to these young players, redshirt freshman Mayan Ahanotu could also kick inside to help on pass rushing downs. 

At this point, Sam Renner, Micah Dew Treadway, Jamaal Teague and Keonte Schad will be in the primary rotation, but if injuries strike, it’s important to have adequate depth. As everyone noticed last year, it’s critical to have a nose tackle that can hold his gap and take on double teams. It helps free up opportunities and better matchups for players on the edge. With pass rushers like Carter Coughlin and a blend of blossoming talents like Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe, Minnesota is starting to develop depth on the edge. Now, the biggest question is the growth of the interior and whether they have enough legitimate options to stop the run, force teams into long-down situations and get creative with the defensive fronts. I think they have the resources, but the key will be how quickly veteran defensive line coach Jim Panagos can elevate young interior defensive linemen.

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