It’s almost time to play football! The Gophers open the 2018 season on Thursday night with a home matchup against New Mexico State. It’s the first chance to see new additions on the field in live action. Following a 5-7 record in P.J. Fleck’s first season as head coach, it’s unclear how the Gophers will perform this year with a young roster. Many key players will be gaining experience through immediate game action. However, it will be benefit the program down the road.
There’s no doubting the team has more talent at a few position groups, but it’s unclear how players will adjust. It’s nearly impossible to project the team’s record because nobody truly knows when all of the young talent will click together. When looking back at last season, there are a few clear areas the Gophers must improve in 2018 if they want to be competitive.
Here’s a list of three key areas:
Improving the passing game
The Gophers had one of the worst passing attacks in the entire country last season. They didn’t throw a single touchdown pass during the final five games and had the eighth-fewest passing yards per game (126) in the NCAA. Much of this was related to inconsistent quarterback play and a depleted wide receiver core. Pass catchers struggled to gain separation vertically and teams stacked the box because the quarterbacks weren’t a threat through the air. This placed a strain on interior runs and forced the Gophers to become one-dimensional offensively.
In order to improve this area, the emphasis will be on completing a high volume of passes and getting into a rhythm offensively. This was a key I highlighted entering last year. In past offenses P.J. Fleck has been a part of, the efficiency metrics have been high.
“The efficiency [is important]. I think last year we were somewhere around 40 percent in quarterback completion percentage,” Fleck said this summer. “You aren’t going to win many games if your team is 40 some percent.”
If the Gophers can hover around the 60 percent mark, it would help boost the entire offense. With true freshman walk-on quarterback Zack Annexstad at the helm, along with an inexperienced group of pass catchers, it’s uncertain how everything will come together. However, there’s no doubting the Gophers have more talent in both areas to help improve the passing attack. It all comes down to gaining experience through live reps. If the offense can find more balance, everyone knows the Gophers have a top-50 rushing attack capable of rushing the football well. A decent passing game would prevent stacked boxes and fronts which sell out against the run.
Run defense must clamp down
Despite all of the problems Minnesota had when defending the run, they still managed to allow the fewest 30-plus yard plays (17) among Big Ten schools last year. It feels like more than half of those came due to issues against the run. The Gophers allowed 172 yards per game in 2017, including an average of 211 yards during the final three games. In 2018, the goal was to gain more mass on the edge to hold up against power running in the Big Ten. When teams would run power plays outside, the Gophers had no answer. They also struggled later in games because the offense couldn’t sustain drives, which created a lopsided time of possession.
This offseason, the Gophers spent time improving the players they had at the position, while adding recruits for 2018 and 2019. The goal is to create more depth at the position as the team heads into the next two seasons.
Carter Coughlin has improved his overall physique and technique during his second-year at the “R” position. Redshirt junior Winston DeLattiboudere is also currently in the fold as a starting defensive end, but Esezi Otomewo, Boye Mafe and Tai’yon Devers will all likely be included in a rotation.
Not only that, but within the interior, O.J. Smith should help as a nose tackle in the one and zero techniques. If he can command attention, it helps open up lanes for the linebackers to get downhill in the running game. Smith’s presence is important because the quality depth and experience drastically drops off after him.
Getting after the quarterback
Over the past seven years, the Gophers have quietly struggled to sustain a quality pass rush. Last year, Minnesota produced just 23 sacks, which finished 79th nationally and tenth in the Big Ten. Just 14.5 of those sacks came directly from the defensive line. If the Gophers want to be successful, they have to get to the quarterback with four rushers from time-to-time. This has been a problem, dating back to 2013. If you look at the statistics below, you’ll notice just one outlier in terms of performance – 2016.
2017- 23 sacks, 14.5 from D-Line (10th in the Big Ten)
2016- 37 sacks (4th Big Ten- more aggressive)
2015- 22 sacks (11th)
2014- 27 sacks (9th)
2013- 18 sacks (10th)
It’s an interesting correlation because the team had some of its best overall success when they were more aggressive. However, they were able to send more pressure because of the talent they had in the back end. That’s a problem the Gophers faced last season. They were unable to be as creative because if they sent an exotic pressure look, it often left inexperienced corners in man-to-man situations on the outside. This year, they have a little more depth and versatility in the backend to use some of the unique skill-sets of players like linebackers Blake Cashman and Kamal Martin. This can be executed through Double A-gap pressure, stunts/twists up front or delayed blitzes. The opportunities are endless if the correct personnel is available at all three levels of the defense.
If you want to learn my thoughts about the first depth chart and how it coincides with these keys, click here.
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