Minnesota Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner calls out a play at the line of scrimmage during warm ups prior to a game against the Kent State Golden Flashes on Sept. 19, 2015, at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
MINNEAPOLIS — The transition in head coaches at Minnesota from Jerry Kill to Tracy Claeys has been subtle, save for a contrast in personality and size.
Claeys had one big target for change, though. The offensive line needed to be restored as a power. "Road graders" was the label he used to describe the type of players desired up front.
Jonah Pirsig and the rest of the returners received the message after their 6-7 season a year ago.
"Offensive linemen have just really bought into the fact that we need to be bigger and we need to be stronger to kind of change the culture," the senior right tackle said, adding: "We’re only going to see good things from that."
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With junior college transfers Vincent Calhoun and Garrison Wright joining Pirsig in the starting five, the Gophers will be bigger. Obsessive work in the weight room over the winter and spring has drawn rave reviews, so the group is stronger. Will it be better?
"There’s no question that they’ve made a lot of progress," Claeys said.
In 2015, the Gophers were second-to-last in the Big Ten in scoring, third-to-last in yards and fourth-to-last in rushing. Claeys fired offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover, picking Jay Johnson and Bart Miller as dual replacements. The five up front, of course, will go a long way toward senior quarterback Mitch Leidner’s success.
"I know they’ve outworked everybody in the entire country, as far as that goes," Leidner said. "They straight grind."
Here are some other key angles to follow for the Gophers:
With Shannon Brooks hobbled by a foot injury, Rodney Smith will take the lead at running back following a promising freshman year for both of them. Senior Drew Wolitarsky is the only proven wide receiver. Tight end Brandon Lingen, named a captain as a junior, will likely be Leidner’s go-to guy.
"It’s been an incredible thing to try to help lead this team in maybe some different capacities than I would’ve before," Lingen said.
Speedster Jalen Myrick, who was second on the team last season with three interceptions, will lead an inexperienced collection of cornerbacks with Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray in NFL camps. Safety Damarius Travis has returned for a fifth year after a hamstring injury in the 2015 opener led to a medical redshirt. Myrick and Travis will be counted to maintain the secondary as a team strength.
One bonus for the defensive backs is that Jay Sawvel, their fiery former position coach, has replaced Claeys as defensive coordinator.
"He’s not only yelling at us," Travis said. "He’s yelling at everybody."
The Gophers host Oregon State Sept. 1, their now-annual Thursday night lid-lifter. After kicking off last season with a 23-17 loss to TCU, ranked then No. 2 in the nation, the Gophers ought to have a smoother start. The Beavers finished 2-10 last year, including 0-9 in Pac-12 play, and allowed an average of 37 points per game that ranked 113th out of 127 FBS teams.
The Big Ten opener at Penn State on Oct. 1 will be a big test, as will the Nov. 12 trip to Nebraska. For the Gophers, though, rare are the games more important than border-state rivals Iowa (home, Oct. 8) and Wisconsin (road, Nov. 26). The Hawkeyes are the defending Big Ten West Division champions, and the Badgers have beaten Minnesota 12 straight years. The Gophers have lost 10 consecutive games at Wisconsin since winning there in 1994.
By trading TCU for Oregon State on the nonconference slate and swapping East Division crossover opponents Michigan and Ohio State for Maryland and Rutgers, the Gophers are set up for a significant jump from their 5-7 regular-season finish that got them to a bowl game only because there weren’t enough eligible FBS teams to fill the spots. An 8-4 record with a 5-4 mark in the Big Ten, now on a nine-game schedule, is a safe bet for 2016. Nine or 10 wins wouldn’t be unrealistic, either.