Tyler Mason’s Dec. 4 Gopher mailbag

The regular season is over for the Gophers football team as Minnesota now awaits its bowl game fate. In the meantime, I took your questions following Saturday’s 14-3 loss to Michigan State in the regular-season finale. Not surprisingly, many of the questions focused on the struggles of the Gophers’ offense in recent weeks. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions this week — and all season.

Q: Our Gophers, like the Purple, simply need better play from the QB position. My question is with the continuous struggles at the QB position, will the Gophers #1 recruiting target be a passing QB? Thank you.–James T., Mahtomedi, Minn.

A: Even though the Gophers have had their issues at quarterback this year, I don’t see that position being the top priority in recruiting. Keep in mind, Philip Nelson is only a sophomore and Mitch Leidner is a redshirt freshman. Aside from those two, Minnesota is also high on freshman quarterback Chris Streveler, who has yet to play this year and will be a redshirt freshman in 2014. Of the six quarterbacks on their roster, none are set to graduate after this season. The Gophers do have a commitment from high school quarterback Dimonic McKinzy, a three-star recruit from Kansas City, Kan.

There are plenty of areas which Minnesota needs to bolster in recruiting, but I don’t believe quarterback should be the main focus. If anything, I think the Gophers should focus on landing a playmaking wide receiver, something that has been lacking from this year’s team. Minnesota’s 2014 recruiting class currently doesn’t include a wide receiver. True, the Gophers are grooming true freshmen Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky to become starters in the near future, but another skilled wide receiver could certainly benefit Minnesota’s passing attack.

Q: Tyler, I love the improvements the Gophers have shown with their defense and running game but you cannot compete without a passing attack and the Gophers have shown nothing. Do you think their present QBs can learn or do they have people coming in who can throw the ball? I thank you.–Al, Chatham, Ill.

A: This piggybacks a bit off of the last question about the quarterback situation. I agree that the Gophers have made strides defensively and in the ground game, as David Cobb became the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. But the passing game remains a concern. It was Philip Nelson’s team for most of the year, although the Gophers did sub in redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner at times.

Nelson showed some promise at times and was able to make many good throws throughout the season. His best stretch of the year came during Minnesota’s four-game winning streak in the Big Ten. During that time he threw for seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. But Nelson didn’t find the end zone in the final two games and had a pair of interceptions — both coming against Michigan State. In 10 games, Nelson topped 200 yards just once. Compare that to the four games in which he had less than 100 yards (granted, one of those was a game in which he was injured).

Leidner didn’t have much more success during his limited playing time. He finished with less than a third of the pass attempts that Nelson had but did complete them at a higher percentage (57.1 percent vs. 51.4). Yet Leidner only had one touchdown in the seven games in which he attempted a pass. In his start against Michigan on the road in a hostile environment, Leidner did have some success moving the ball down the field and finished with a season-high 145 passing yards.

In the cases of both quarterbacks, there are several factors at play. One glaring issue is the lack of weapons around both Nelson and Leidner. While Cobb was a nice complement in the backfield, neither quarterback had a playmaker at wide receiver to throw the ball to. Derrick Engel had a nice season before tearing his ACL in practice prior to the Gophers’ game against Wisconsin, but he was really the lone go-to target. Not having reliable receivers — there were many drops throughout the season — hurt the passing game.

The other key factor is the youth of not only the quarterbacks — Nelson is a sophomore and Leidner is a redshirt freshman — but their receivers were young, too. This is a passing attack that is young and will continue to grow and learn together. In that regard, I do believe that Minnesota’s current quarterbacks will get better. Nelson was thrown into the fire last year as a true freshman and made strides as a sophomore. We can expect Leidner will learn from his experience this year, too. And the Gophers do have another young quarterback, freshman Chris Streveler, who will continue to learn and develop. He used a redshirt this year, so he’ll have four years of eligibility left.

Q: With Michigan State’s D as great as they are, was the Gophers not scoring again offensively this week due to something wrong overall with the offense or Michigan State’s D just that good?–Adam, Bloomington, Minn.

A: I think it’s a combination of both, and you’re definitely not the only one to worry about the offense against top defenses and whether that will improve next year. Pete from Mankato, Minn., was wondering the same thing too. Keep in mind that hardly any team was able to put up points against Michigan State’s defense. The Spartans held Illinois to three points, Michigan to six, and shut out lowly Purdue. So to allow just three points to the Gophers was par for the course for MSU.

What made the lack of scoring so glaring for Minnesota was the success the Gophers had during their four-game winning streak leading up to games against stingy defenses (Wisconsin and Michigan State). Prior to the loss to the Badgers, Minnesota averaged 30 points per game against Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. The Gophers’ offense was even more impressive in nonconference play, racking up an average of 41.8 points per contest.

Even against two of the best defenses in the Big Ten, though, it was a bit troubling that Minnesota couldn’t manage at least one offensive touchdown. The only time the Gophers found the end zone in the last two games came via an interception return by linebacker Aaron Hill. As we saw this past weekend, Wisconsin’s defense is more vulnerable than it looked at TCF Bank Stadium. The Badgers just surrendered 31 points — at home, no less — in a loss to Penn State.

Indeed, Michigan State’s defense was by far the best unit the Gophers faced all season — and possibly the best they’ve seen in the three years since Jerry Kill has been the coach. The Spartans rank near the top in almost every defensive category, a big reason why they’ll play in the Big Ten Championship this weekend. So while Minnesota struggled to put up points against Michigan State last weekend, don’t pin it all on the Gophers’ offense. MSU’s defense certainly deserves a lot of credit, too.

Q:  Who’s the best draft prospect Minnesota has? Do you see any players with Eric Decker potential — like mid round guys who weren’t as well-known in college because they were at Minnesota but became impact players in the NFL?–Chris O’Neil, Minneapolis

A: In terms of players who might get drafted this year, there’s no question that defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman has the highest draft stock of any Gopher. Coming into the season, he was mentioned as a potential late-first round or second round pick. He’s backed up that talk with a solid senior season, including some big plays against some of the Big Ten’s top teams. The latest mock draft from Sports Illustrated, updated this week, has Hageman going No. 28 overall to the New England Patriots. That’s the same spot that one analyst from CBS Sports has him falling in the first round, while another from the same site predicts the Seattle Seahawks will take him with the final pick of the first round at No. 32. Regardless, the consensus seems to be that Hageman definitely has a chance to go in the opening round of the 2014 draft. If that’s the case, he will become the first Gophers player taken in the first round since running back Laurence Maroney went 21st overall to the Patriots in 2006.

As far as whether there are any players like Decker — a third-round pick who has turned into a quality receiver in Denver — that’s tough to say. I don’t anticipate any players leaving school early for the draft, so that leaves us with the senior class. Of that group, the one that jumps out to me is safety Brock Vereen. He recently earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as the steadying force in Minnesota’s secondary. Vereen showed he can play both cornerback and safety, and he rarely made mistakes. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he has NFL bloodlines — his older brother, Shane, is currently a running back for New England. Brock has been starting games since his freshman season in 2010 and has only continued to get better. I could definitely see a team taking him in this year’s draft.

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter