The Gophers have released their first official depth chart ahead of the season-opener against New Mexico State on Thursday. It officially highlights a large stable of inexperience which will be asked to play during certain stages of the year. There are currently 28 freshmen players listed throughout the Gophers’ depth chart. Five of those players are listed in top slots, including wide receiver Rashod Bateman, quarterback Zack Annexstad, right guard Blaise Andries, cornerback Terell Smith and wide receiver Demetrius Douglas. All of these players have stood out in practice sessions and will be asked to play on a young roster. The complete team is made up of 53% freshmen and roughly 77 percent of the roster has been with the program less than two years (including transfers). As everyone knows, they’ll be starting quarterback Zack Annexstad, who is the first true freshman walk-on to start Week 1 since Baker Mayfield. Outside of that, youth will be scattered throughout position groups.
Here are a few abbreviated takeaways from the first depth chart:
This is the one of the positions where a young player will be thrust into a large role in 2018. In three wide receiver sets, true freshman Rashod Bateman, redshirt freshman Demetrius Douglas and junior Tyler Johnson are all listed at the top. Redshirt freshman Chris Autman-Bell and converted wide receiver Seth Green are also slotted just behind them and will rotate into the group. Bateman is one player who could turn heads and put together huge production as a true freshman.
With the depleted nature of last season’s depth chart at wide receiver, the overall talent injection will help elevate the overall passing game. However, there will be moments of inexperience as the group adjusts to playing college football at a young age. There’s no questioning the talent, though, which will certainly help the Gophers not just this year, but into the future.
This is one position group where if an injury occurs, a young player will be thrust into a starting role. The Gophers have just two upper classmen backups among all of the offensive line positions. It means Curtis Dunlap Jr. or Daniel Faalele could see action in the event an injury occurs. P.J. Fleck has made it known the team is trying to formulate depth at this position, but it will take time due to the influx of young players the staff added in 2018. The starting core will have some continuity and experience, but the question is whether the unit can make it through the complete slate together.
Outside of the top performers like Antoine Winfield Jr., Jacob Huff and Antonio Shenault, the Gophers are inexperienced at the defensive back position. Again, this is another area where young players will need to step up. They’ll probably end up rotating the defensive backs around, but we’ll likely see plenty of true freshmen defensive backs Terell and C.J. Smith this season. Their versatility could allow them to play in the nickel role or outside.
There’s plenty of versatility at the depth spots, which will provide the coaching staff with some flexibility. Terell Smith has been one of the most impressive young players on the roster and is far ahead from a technical standpoint. He has length, size and quickness to get into passing lanes because of his evolving footwork. He is listed as a top option and might rotate into the nickel package with a player like Justus Harris, who benefited from snaps in the late stages of last season. Florida transfer Chris Williamson is listed low in the safety portion of the depth chart and might elevate over time.
One of the areas where Minnesota didn’t really gain much value was in the punt return game last year. They currently have Antoine Winfield Jr. listed as the starting punt returner. This is fascinating. When Fleck was asked about using him as a return man, he hinted at it being an “experiment.” It’s also worth noting how he has stressed the importance of field position this year. With an explosive playmaker like Winfield Jr. as a returner, perhaps he could create some big plays to set up the offense with a short field. Will he be able to take all of the additional hits? Time will tell.
In addition, Rodney Smith is listed as the primary kick off returner. He has served in this role before, but with added snaps on offense, it will be interesting to see if this is a trend throughout the year.
No. 2 Running Back Job
When asked about the No. 2 running back role behind Rodney Smith, P.J. Fleck has expressed confidence in Mohamed Ibrahim. However, it feels like true freshman Bryce Williams is gaining momentum and could blend into the rotation. He has impressive athleticism and above average agility for a running back. His upside is high and the depth chart currently lists Ibrahim or Williams. When asked about the running back position on Sunday, Fleck highlighted Bryce Williams.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of him as a true freshman,” Fleck said.
The snaps will likely be split and one player will eventually separate themselves though game action. However, don’t be surprised if it’s Williams.
With Ryan Santoso in the NFL, the Gophers will be using a new punter this year. Jacob Herbers is currently listed as the starter, but this could change throughout the season. SMU transfer Alex Melvin could rotate into the starting role because Fleck indicated they’ll be evaluating the punter position on a week-to-week basis. Special teams is an important component to the game as teams strive to play complementary football.
One of the best football quotes you can live by comes from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
He said, “What competition is – teamwork and working together and supporting each other and having the offense, defense, and special teams play complementary football and win as a team. This is certainly part of that process and the team building itself together.”
It’s going to be a major key for this team to compete in close games this year.
To see the complete depth chart, you can click here.
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