It’s that time of year for the Gophers football mailbags. With Minnesota kicking off its season Thursday against Eastern Illinois, I took some time to answer your questions about the upcoming 2014 season. There was definitely an overall theme of optimism in this first group of questions, something I think is echoed among the Gophers players, too. So here it is, the first mailbag of 2014.
Q: It seems like since Kill has been here, every year there is one player who doesn’t start the season as a starter but due to injury or poor play by a starter a bench guy fills in and becomes a monster on field and seizes that opportunity. Who is one player that we can expect to come out of nowhere this year? — Adam, Bloomington, Minn.
Q: David Cobb essentially came from nowhere to rush for 1,200 yards last season. Who do you believe will be this year’s breakout player that came out of nowhere? — DJ, Edina, Minn.
A: I received these two near-identical questions, so I’ll answer them both to start things off. As DJ mentioned, running back David Cobb emerged from the bottom of the depth chart last year to eventually be the Gophers’ top rusher. Entering fall camp, there weren’t many expectations for the Texas native, who had just a handful of carries during his first two seasons before becoming Minnesota’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006.
It’s hard to predict when a player like Cobb will come out of nowhere to become a key contributor, but I’ll do my best to pick a few guys who might have that opportunity in 2014. One of those is wide receiver Eric Carter, a redshirt freshman who won’t start but could play a role in Minnesota’s passing game this year. Coaches have raved about Carter during spring and fall camps, and he’s athletic enough to make plays for a passing attack desperately seeking a playmaker.
Defensively, keep an eye on defensive tackle Steven Richardson. He’s one of a few true freshmen who should see the field this year. At 6 feet, 291 pounds, Richardson plays with a low pad level and has the size to line up at tackle. He showed a penchant for getting into the backfield during the Gophers’ scrimmage earlier this fall, and he could do so again once the season starts.
Like I said before, it’s hard to predict a breakout player; that’s part of what makes their emergences surprising. One thing we can predict is that at least one player will come out of nowhere to make an impact for the Gophers in 2014.
Q: Will all four freshmen wide receivers red shirt? — Trevor, Alexandria, Minn.
A: The four freshmen receivers you refer to are Melvin Holland Jr., Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and Conner Krizancic. While the Gophers are searching for playmakers at the receiver position, Minnesota’s coaching staff has already said during fall camp that they hope to be able to redshirt all four of the true freshmen wide receivers. Holland Jr. and Gentry have had strong camps and continue to draw praise from coaches. But as of right now, Minnesota can afford to keep the redshirt on those four and hopefully give them all a season to learn without losing a year of eligibility. I’d guess that the only way any of the four burn their redshirt would be in the case of a few injuries to the other wide receivers. If everyone stays relatively healthy, don’t expect to see Holland, Gentry, Gant or Krizancic on the field this year.
Q: It seems like we haven’t heard too many good things out of camp from Chris Streveler at the backup QB position. Any chance (Conor) Rhoda wins that battle, or even a guy like true freshman (Dimonic) Roden-McKinzy? — Nathan, Moorhead, Minn.
A: It’s not so much that we haven’t heard good things about Streveler, but moreso a fact of Mitch Leidner entering camp as the undoubted No. 1 quarterback. Unlike last fall, there was no real quarterback competition like when Leidner and Philip Nelson battled for the starting job. The Gophers made it clear that Leidner is their guy.
Streveler, a redshirt freshman, remains a work in progress, but he’ll be the No. 2 quarterback behind Leidner to open the season. Rhoda, another redshirt freshman who played his high school ball at Cretin-Derham Hall, spent most of fall camp getting reps with the third-string offense. Roden-McKinzy, meanwhile, is still the most raw of all the quarterbacks. The coaches love his athleticism, but accuracy remains an issue.
The backup that I was most impressed with in fall camp — or at least from what I saw during the practices and scrimmage that the media were able to watch — was Jacques Perra from Roseville. He looked poised under center and seemed to already have a strong grasp of Minnesota’s offense. As a true freshman, though, it’s unlikely he’ll play this year and should take a redshirt this season. One thing’s for certain, though: the Gophers remain very young at quarterback, meaning it’ll be important to keep Leidner as healthy as possible throughout the year.
Q: Weeks 1 and 2 could be similar to last season, where the Gophers can move the chains without having to throw the ball. Last year, it hurt the team once they got into Big Ten play. Will we see more balance from the offense early in the schedule this year? — John, Plymouth, Minn.
A: There’s no doubt that this team’s main identity on offense will be its rushing attack, led by 1,000-yard rusher David Cobb and a pair of capable backups in Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. But there will likely be more of an emphasis on the passing game in 2014, as there should be.
Minnesota’s passing offense ranked last in the Big Ten in yards per game last season, partially due to the inconsistency at the quarterback position. Now that Leidner is hands down the starting quarterback, the issue of flip-flopping the starter throughout the season shouldn’t arise.
The big question will be whether the wide receiver group can rise to the occasion and give Leidner some weapons to throw to in order to help move the chains through the air. Tight end Maxx Williams burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman last year and should continue to be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. At receiver, sophomores Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky will benefit from a year of playing at the college level under their belts.
Additionally, I’d keep an eye on redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, a speedy running back who could add an element to the offense we haven’t seen yet during Kill’s tenure at Minnesota. If the Gophers can get the ball into Edwards’ hands and let him run in open space, watch out.
So while the bread and butter of this year’s offense will still be the running game, Minnesota’s passing attack needs to be good enough to keep opposing defenses honest. We’ll find out if Leidner and Co. can do just that.
Q: I really love what Coach Kill has done on the field lately and want to start following his recruiting. What website or person can you recommend? — Brad, Mille Lacs, Minn.
A: While we do some recruiting stories on FOXSportsNorth.com, it’s admittedly not our forte. I’ve always used the guys at Scout.com to track recruiting for both Gophers football and basketball. Over at Gopher Digest (minnesota.scout.com), you can find Minnesota-specific news and updates on potential recruits, with rankings of players, bios, stats, video highlights for some players, and any other information you’d need. Check them out.
Q: Am I looking through maroon and gold colored glasses, or is it possible the Gophers could be undefeated going into the Iowa game? — Dave, Oakdale, Minn.
A: Going undefeated prior to facing Iowa would mean Minnesota would go 8-0 to start the season. While I’m not saying it’s impossible, I will say it’s highly unlikely — and history backs up that statement. The last time the Gophers started a season 8-0? You’d have to go all the way back to 1941, when Minnesota won all eight games that year en route to winning both the Big Ten Championship and a national title. Even a 6-0 start hasn’t happened for the Gophers in over a decade (2003 was the last time they did that).
Before the Gophers get to Iowa on the schedule on Nov. 8, they’ll play three road games at TCU, Michigan and Illinois. The first two of those are where I see the most likely Minnesota roadblocks. Though TCU had a down year last year at 4-8, four of those losses came against Top 25 teams (including a three-point loss to No. 9 Baylor to end the season). The Horned Frogs have a chance to finish in the top half of the Big 12 this season, so a trip to Fort Worth will be no picnic for the Gophers in Week 3. And Minnesota hasn’t had a ton of recent success in Ann Arbor, going 1-10 in its last 11 trips to face Michigan on the road.
I applaud you for being optimistic, but I just don’t see 8-0 happening this year. I think most Gophers fans would be happy with eight total wins, let alone eight straight to start the season.
Q: Tyler, we hear so much about how we have more players backing up the starters at almost every position. What position is our weakness this year where we cannot afford injuries? — Chris
A: Linebacker. Simply put, Minnesota’s thinnest position is the linebacker corps. Even the starters lack a ton of experience, with Damien Wilson, De’Vondre Campbell and Jack Lynn slated to be the starting trio. If junior-college transfer Cody Poock were healthy, Gophers fans could feel a bit better about the linebacker depth. But Poock is still sidelined with a knee injury, and it remains to be seen when he’ll return to action. Until then, there’s not a lot of experience after the starting three linebackers.
Redshirt sophomore Nick Rallis played 10 games last year but had just seven tackles. Redshirt junior Dominic Schultz played mostly on special teams last year. Other than those two and the starting three, Minnesota doesn’t return any other linebackers with playing experience. The rest of the position group is redshirt or true freshmen, so some of the younger guys will have to step up. One to watch is De’Niro Laster, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound redshirt freshman from Cleveland who could get some decent playing time as a backup. Overall, though, Minnesota can’t really afford for the starting linebackers to get dinged up.
Q: Tim Brewster talked about the Rose Bowl on day one. Jerry Kill has frequently tempered expectations over his first three seasons at Minnesota, and players have followed suit. This year, we’ve heard from David Cobb that the players believe they can go 12-0. Is this an indicator that coaches now feel this program is good enough that talking about national success is no longer a delusion? — Todd, St. Louis Park, Minn.
A: I think Kill and the coaching staff have done a good job with managing expectations during their first three seasons on campus. The coaches knew they had some work to do to build the program back up to respectability, and after last year’s eight-win season, that’s exactly what they’ve done. But it took time to get to this point, just like Kill preached it would. Heck, the team’s slogan since Kill arrived has been "brick by brick," insinuating that a football program can’t be built overnight.
As for Cobb’s remark that he and his teammates believe they can go 12-0, that’s certainly the optimism Gophers fans would hope to see from the players. And after Minnesota showed signs of progress during last year’s run, going undefeated doesn’t sound quite as crazy as it might have two or three years ago. I’m typically not big on players making predictions on how many games they’ll win or things of that nature, and I don’t think Cobb was necessarily predicting the Gophers to go 12-0 (I believe his exact quote was, "When we say we want to be 12-0, we mean it.") Rather, it was a sign that they truly believe in the process of building things one game and one season at a time. Now in Kill’s fourth season, they’re to the point where they can think more about having success in the Big Ten and beyond, rather than worrying about simply getting to six wins.