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Five Players to Watch in the Future: Gophers' Offense

02/19/2019, 6:45pm CST
By Daniel House

Spring practices are quickly approaching and Gopher football discussions will intensify in the coming weeks. With an extensive amount of returning starters, specifically on offense, Minnesota has the chance to build upon the strides they made in 2018. 

Last season, an injection of talent at the wide receiver spot helped the Gophers’ passing offense take a big step forward.As I discussed in a previous article, Minnesota finished the season averaging 7.8 yards per passing attempt, which ranked No. 33 nationally. It was the highest yards per attempt figure posted by the Gophers since the 2006-07 season (7.8 yards per attempt). Prior to this year, the Gophers had not averaged more than 7.0 yards per attempt in any season since 2014. 

They also found success behind a cohesive offensive line and the legs of redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim. Ibrahim rushed for the second-most yards ever by a Gophers’ freshman (1,160 yards) and became the first Minnesota freshman to rush for more than 100 yards five times since Laurence Maroney in 2003. The Gophers return all but two key contributors on offense and will inject several contributors into the rotation this season. On the ground, the coaching staff can rotate carries between Ibrahim, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. This will create an interesting opportunity for the coaches to be creative with their running backs. 

After a strong recruiting haul last year, Minnesota continued to add offensive weapons in the latest cycle. The most apparent takeaway is the team’s emphasis upon adding length, size and play strength to the pass catching positions. When the season begins, I’ll be keeping a close eye on several players who could make an impact for the Gophers in the future. 

When each of these athletes see extended action will vary, but this is my short list of players I’m intrigued to see in maroon and gold:

Brevyn Spann-Ford, TE, Redshirt Freshman- I would argue Brevyn Spann-Ford is one of the most intriguing players on the roster. The redshirt freshman didn’t see much action this year, but it’s hard not to be excited about what he could bring to the team. Minnesota needs to add more length, size and physicality to the offense. The perfect prescription is a tight end who can stretch the seam with his athleticism, size and ball skills. He is the type of mismatch player the coaching staff can flex all over the field in a “hybrid-type” role. Spann-Ford has above average leaping ability and ball skills to catch passes all over his frame. His unique athleticism and ability to create big plays could add another dimension to the Gophers’ offense in 2019. When isolated on a linebacker, he is very difficult to cover and gives offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca flexibility to dial up creative route concepts. Not to mention, the young tight end can draw attention in the red zone and free up opportunities for athletes on the outside. 

Last season, Spann-Ford was in the background developing and head coach P.J. Fleck mentioned him on numerous occasions. Fleck was clearly excited about his progress over the past year. A former No. 1 rated player in the state, Spann-Ford has added more physicality to his frame. He was listed at 245 pounds in my 2018 Football Guide and is currently at the 260-pound mark. As a very early prediction, I would peg Spann-Ford as a potential break-out player for the Gophers in 2019. 

Jason Dickson, OT- Junior A junior college transfer last season, Jason Dickson redshirted last season and is expected to compete for the starting left tackle job. I added a veteran to this list because he is a player I'll be watching very closely. In 2018, Dickson was rated as the No. 4 junior college offensive tackle by ESPN and No. 41 in the ESPN junior college top-50. With Donnell Greene graduating and pursuing an NFL career, Dickson will have big shoes to fill. A few traits that stood on his junior college tape: his lateral agility and quickness for a player with his size. He plays with very heavy hands and could add a more consistent inside strike to his arsenal. Based solely off his limited JUCO tape, Dickson can continue working on his pass protection sets/slides, pad level and consistency as a run blocker. Some of this will likely be improved through strength, considering he has added additional weight to his frame since arriving at Minnesota. It will be interesting to evaluate his development over the past year, especially considering he has upside as a pass blocker. 

When factoring in another year of coaching with Brian Callahan, Dickson is the type of player that could make a huge impact next season. Dickson’s 6-foot-6, 315-pound frame, combined with the size of Daniel Faalele, gives the Gophers two powerful tackles to handle opposing edge rushers. He is expected to make an impact this year in Minnesota's offense. 

Nnamdi Adim-Madumere, WR- Freshman Although he won’t be here for spring ball, Nnamdi Adim-Madumere is going to be grabbing my attention in the fall. Earlier in this article, I talked about the need for play strength and mismatches in the Gophers’ offense. Adim Madumere checks those boxes and brings physicality, ball skills and the ability to stretch the field vertically. For a player with a 6-foot-3 frame, he uses his overall strength to get open and will only improve his route-running under Matt Simon’s instruction. Adim Madumere is very tough to cover because he has quickness, power and the skills to adjust to the ball on traffic. Everyone talks about his physical skills, but I’m equally impressed with his hands and ball tracking. It’s uncertain how much of a role he will play this early in his career, but I won’t be surprised if he bursts onto the scene and creates another crazy matchup option for the coaches. 

Mike Brown-Stephens- WR- Freshman I would use one word to describe Mike Brown-Stephens’ tape: natural. He looks like he’s been playing the game for a very long time because of how he competes. Brown-Stephens is a very dynamic option out of the slot and is extremely tough for defenses to cover because he is so quick out of his breaks. Not only that, but he has a wide catch radius in traffic to bring down contested grabs. Brown-Stephens is a tough matchup and will open other opportunities for athletes on the outside because of the attention he will command in the intermediate game. He’s the type of player you can flex all over the field and use in unique ways. This is a theme of skill players Minnesota has added. They all fall within unique prototypes at their respective positions. The jet-sweep game is somewhere Brown-Stephens can flourish, too. With his route tree already showing some nuance, I’m curious to see what he can do under P.J. Fleck and Matt Simon. He’s one freshman to keep a close eye on during the spring practices. 

Jacob Clark, QB - Freshman- With both Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan developing, the Gophers added another young quarterback to the room. Jacob Clark, a quarterback from Rockwall, TX, slipped through the cracks and is widely considered one of the most underrated quarterback prospects in that region. He completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,287 yards and 31 touchdowns during his senior season. He also tossed just seven interceptions and added ten rushing scores. His pocket feel and accuracy at all three levels are a few areas that stand out when watching his film. Accuracy and arm strength are two of the most important traits when evaluating a quarterback’s potential. In books and videos, Mike Leach has always been a proponent of accuracy and what it tells us about a passer’s ability to be successful. Clark also ran a very similar offensive system in high school. After diving into their offense, I’m expecting he may transition better than most young quarterbacks. Evaluating quarterbacks is something I particularly enjoy, so this will be very intriguing. Note: I really liked this book and highly recommend it:

With all of that in mind, the quarterback position will be worth monitoring, especially considering both Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan have continually improved during their time at Minnesota. The Gophers are finally developing a little depth at the quarterback position after spending the past two seasons with inexperience at the helm.

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