The Gophers are officially two weeks from their Aug. 29 season opener against South Dakota State. Every year, we always see a small group of underrated players emerge and make an impact. Minnesota’s depth chart features the tenth-most returning production in college football. With roughly 80 percent of the roster still falling in the underclassmen category, this is the season where several young players could take the next step.
Outside of the main names everyone always discusses, I pulled out a few players who may become key contributors in 2019.
Sophomore Rashod Bateman is poised for a breakout season. As a true freshman, Bateman hauled in 51 receptions for 704 yards and six touchdowns. He put up these numbers last year while still learning technical aspects of the position. In 2019, you’ll notice a physical difference from Bateman. When he arrived at Minnesota, he weighed 173 pounds. After an offseason of work, Bateman said he currently weighs around 201 pounds. This physical transformation will help his overall physicality and play strength. Bateman’s ball skills and leaping ability helped him make tough grabs last year. Now, he has the physical skills to win contested catch battles and handle contact at the top of routes. This, combined with Bateman’s detailed route-running and speed, will make him a really tough matchup for opposing defenses. He could be one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten.
It’s been a long time since the Gophers have entered the season with this much wide receiver talent. Demetrius Douglas may have the best hands on the team and Chris Autman-Bell has made tremendous progress as a route runner. Not to mention, one of the top wide receivers in the country – Tyler Johnson – is returning for his senior season. One of these receivers is going to consistently get a mismatch because Johnson commands so much attention. You can run a bunch set on one side of the field and get man-to-man looks for Johnson. If the defense provides help for Johnson, you can get another wide receiver on a safety or linebacker. Not only that, but the coaches could flex a tight end out-wide in 11 personnel to add another offensive element. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca will be dialing up a variety of different route concepts and packages to take advantage of this talent.
Everyone is talking about tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford (rightfully so), but don’t forget about Jake Paulson. I expect him to play a large role in the offense this year because of the improvements he made this offseason. Paulson is stronger and can help block on the edge. There are instances where Ko Kieft and Paulson could be on the field together in 12 personnel to help the running game. All across the board, the tight end room has made noticeable physical gains. This gives the coaches options for how they are used. Minnesota can run 12 personnel, put Paulson in-line and flex an athletic mismatch like Brevyn Spann-Ford out-wide. Paulson can also be a threat in the red zone because he’s a big target and has skills in the passing game. It’s clear the tight end room made big improvements this offseason and it could play a role in how the Gophers approach their offensive schemes.
Curtis Dunlap Jr.
During Minnesota’s 34-10 Quick Lane Bowl win, everyone saw a small glimpse of guard Curtis Dunlap Jr.’s potential. Dunlap is a powerful, physical and athletic offensive guard. He arrived at Minnesota weighing 370 pounds, but has cut roughly 25 pounds over the past year. The physical difference from Dunlap was noticeable during the most recent fall camp practices. Despite his size, he has the movements skills to help in space. Dunlap has continued to improve technically and is rock solid in 1-on-1 drills. His hand technique, balance and agility are three traits that make him a really unique player. If he follows the right developmental track, he could be a future NFL product. Dunlap has tremendous upside and will be a fixture of the Gophers’ offensive line for seasons to come. This year, when the Gophers want to run the ball right, they’ll have more than 745 pounds to run behind.
The Gophers needed a powerful nose tackle in their defense and managed to land Notre Dame transfer Micah Dew-Treadway. Since arriving at Minnesota, Dew-Treadway has become a vocal leader of the unit. Head coach P.J. Fleck recently said he has elevated the play of everyone around him. Dew-Treadway’s size and understanding of leverage will draw attention and help create lanes for linebackers to move freely. The Gophers will likely utilize plenty of different defensive looks this year because of their personnel.
They could use a 3-4 look and take advantage of their edge rushers. In this case, having a dominant one-gap nose tackle is critical. They could also run a two-gap 3-4 defensive look, which also requires a powerful, strong and disruptive nose tackle. Dew-Treadway has shown he can take on double teams and that’s the key trait needed to be successful on defense. When Minnesota runs its 4-3 hybrid defense with Carter Coughlin at the “R” position, the nose tackle has important multi-gap responsibilities (depending upon the specific call). Last year, when he was healthy, we could see the difference O.J. Smith made on the run defense. The Gophers need Dew-Treadway to be a disruptive difference-maker within the interior.
Honorable mention on the defensive line: Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo. The length and explosiveness of these two players is only part of the story. They’ve also each added more pass rushing moves to their arsenal. The Gophers can use Mafe in a variety of ways a pass rusher, including off the edge. Otomewo could become a situational weapon, while playing a few different techniques on the defensive line. With the varying skill sets and players developing at this position, I’m expecting to see a pretty heavy rotation of defensive linemen this year.
Linebacker Thomas Rush is a player who blows up all of the testing metrics. His speed, agility and length are all traits that make him really valuable to the defense. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi can take advantage of Rush’s versatility by moving him all over the field. They can vary the defensive packages to get him on the field with Kamal Martin, Thomas Barber and Carter Coughlin. Minnesota has unique athletes at all three levels of its defense. With players like Rush available, Joe Rossi can mix up his looks and take advantage of the skill sets available.
The idea of overloading a formation with Martin, Coughlin and Rush is very attractive. Rush has the range to run down plays and could be a weapon off various blitz packages. He might not see a high volume of snaps this year, but is the type of player who will make splash plays when he’s on the field.
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Tag(s): Gopher Football