Questions abound for Gophers at RB, WR & QB in 2015
MINNEAPOLIS — With the 2014 season in the rearview mirror, the University of Minnesota football team has already turned its attention to 2015. In doing so, the Gophers have plenty of questions to answer before the start of the next season.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of those questions are on the offensive side of the ball. Minnesota was solid defensively but was inconsistent on offense for much of the season. Now the Gophers must deal with losing two of their best offensive weapons after running back David Cobb graduated and tight end Maxx Williams left early for the NFL.
It’s likely that much attention will be paid to the running backs in spring ball and fall camp as Minnesota looks for a replacement for Cobb. As a senior this year, Cobb was consistent and dependable. He set the school record for most rushing yards in a single season and was essentially an every-down back for Minnesota. As a result, not many of the backs behind him on the depth chart got a ton of playing time.
Minnesota also lost Donnell Kirkwood to graduation, meaning Rodrick Williams (23 carries in 2014) and Berkley Edwards (30 carries) will enter 2015 as the two running backs on the roster with the most experience. But the Gophers should also have Jeff Jones at their disposal, assuming Jones is finally academically eligible after missing the 2014 season. Redshirt freshman Rodney Smith could also be in the mix.
Following the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, Cobb was asked about the void he’s leaving behind at running back. He sounded confident in the backs the program has for 2015.
"It’s going to be competitive," Cobb said. "I wouldn’t be surprised if we see two or three backs playing and maybe getting 10, 11 carries a game. You always have Rodrick and Berkley here, and then you have Rodney, he’s making plays every day in practice. You have the freshmen coming in, but also Jeff Jones. It’ll be interesting. It’ll be competitive, and that’s the best thing about it."
The Gophers have question marks at the other skill positions on offense, especially wide receiver. That was an area that already struggled to take a step forward in 2014, and the situation wasn’t helped when sophomore Donovahn Jones was dismissed from the team shortly before the Citrus Bowl. The most productive wide receiver, KJ Maye, returns in 2015, but the Gophers do lose senior Isaac Fruechte. Drew Wolitarsky will be a junior next year, but he had just 10 catches this season one year after catching 15 passes as a true freshman. Minnesota will need more production from him moving forward. The Gophers didn’t really have a go-to wide receiver in 2014. Can someone emerge to fill that role in 2015?
The same goes for tight end, where an even bigger vacancy is left after Williams turned pro following his redshirt sophomore season. Williams had one of the best seasons ever by a Gophers tight end, earning All-America honors as well as being named the Big Ten Tight End of the Year. He finished the year with a team-high 36 catches; the rest of Minnesota’s tight ends caught eight passes combined. One of those, Drew Goodger, was a senior this year. The Gophers hope Duke Anyanwu, who missed the 2014 season with a knee injury, can be a productive tight end in 2015. But there’s no one on the roster who can put up anywhere close to the numbers that Williams did this season.
Like Cobb did with the running backs, though, Williams gave praise to the returning group of tight ends.
"There’s so much depth in the tight end room and the whole team," Williams said. "They’re going to be great next year. Everyone knows it. We know it. Now they’ve just got to go out there and put the work in and great things are going to keep happening around here."
Then of course there’s the question mark at quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner was handed the reins to the offense this season and had mixed results. Leidner’s best game of the year might have been the season finale in the Citrus Bowl, where he completed a school record 14 straight passes and set career highs for completions (21) and passing yards (258).
However, Leidner finished the season by completing just 51.5 percent of his passes, which ranked 103rd out of 109 FBS quarterbacks. The way Minnesota’s offense is built, the Gophers’ quarterback doesn’t necessarily need to throw for 300 yards every game. But there were times in 2014 when the issues at that position were glaring.
By the sound of it, Leidner will enter spring ball as the No. 1 starter, but he’ll surely get competition. When fall camp is done, the Gophers need to have their answer at quarterback, as it’s arguably the biggest question mark facing this team for 2015.
"I keep telling people you’ve just got to be patient. Not everybody that comes in as a freshman wins the Heisman," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said after the Citrus Bowl. "We’ve redshirted one, two, three, four wide receivers with a whole lot of length and speed. Our future is good. It’s great to see Mitch take a step forward. I think everyone that covers us, that’s been a big question."
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