No. 47 Minnesota
The book finally closed on an eventful Jerry Kill era with the dismissal of longtime assistant-turned-head coach Tracy Claeys in January. P.J. Fleck now leads the program into a pivotal era.
With glitzy new facilities set to open next year and raised expectations, the first-year coach will attempt to replace eight defensive starters and navigate a more difficult schedule that is laced with toss-up games.
2016 Record: 9-4 (5-4, Big Ten)
Minnesota won nine games in a season for just the second time since 1905. But it wasn't enough to for lame-duck head coach Tracy Claeys to keep him job under new athletics director Mark Coyle. Though Claeys' role in the program's sexual assault suspensions and boycott may have ultimately been the nail in his coffin, it's fair to wonder if an even better season would've saved his job.
And it could've easily been a 10-win season, or better. They lost three one-score games — including an overtime loss to Penn State — and held a 10-point second-half lead at Wisconsin before a late-game meltdown.
Head Coach: P.J. Fleck (1st year)
Five years ago P.J. Fleck was a little-known receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now he's leading a Big Ten program.
The enthusiastic, buzzword-spitting 36-year-old is the polar opposite of the cool, calm and reserved Claeys. Fleck is the third-youngest head coach in the FBS and arrives with just four years of head coaching experience and nine years of full-time college coaching experience.
“People ask me all the time, why Minnesota?” Fleck said during his introductory press conference. “Because we share a vision of winning a national championship. We share a vision of winning the Big Ten West. We share a vision of winning the Big Ten and having Rose Bowls. And I’m not afraid to say that because that’s the way I live my life.”
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Conor Rhoda, QB Demry Croft, RB Rodney Smith, RB Shannon Brooks, TE Brandon Lingen, WR Rashad Still, WR Tyler Johnson, OT Garrison Wright, G Vincent Calhoun, G Jared Weyler
Western Michigan's staff worked wonders with quarterback Zach Terrell. The former two-star recruit blossomed into an elite passer, something the Gophers haven't had since 'Nam.
Fleck has yet to name a starter — or even a leader — between Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft in their bids to replace three-year starter Mitch Leidner, saying in April that they have "a long way to go at quarterback."
"It’s awesome having somebody like Demry, with his skill level, to push me and vice versa,” said Rhoda, a former walk-on who started one game last year. “This summer’s obviously going to be huge, as far as us both developing our leadership.”
The winner has the safety net of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks (below) at running back. Both hard-nosed ball carriers unafraid of contact, they combined for over 2,000 yards of offense in 2016.
There is experience at receiver but — oddly — none of their upperclassmen have caught many passes. Of the five receivers currently projected on the two-deep depth chart, none have more than 20 receptions in a season. Keep an eye on Rashad Still, a 6-foot-5, 205-pounder who averaged nearly 20 yards per catch last year.
Fleck hit the jackpot in hiring former Ohio State offensive coordinator Ed Warinner to lead his offensive line. The coaching veteran takes over a line filled with versatile upperclassmen but loads of injury concerns. Three starters — Wright, Calhoun and Weyler — are coming off offseason surgeries. Don't be surprised if Warinner names an unexpected starter — or two — in fall camp.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Steven Richardson, DE Tai'yon Devers, LB Carter Coughlin, LB Blake Cashman, LB Jonathan Celestin, S Duke McGhee, S Antoine Winfield Jr.
Minnesota ranked in the nation's top 25 in most defensive categories, including turnovers gained (24th), rushing (14th) and scoring (21st). But they lost eight starters, including five in the front seven, which lacks depth and has been occasionally dominated by good offensive lines.
The star is defensive tackle Steven Richardson, a would-be first-round prospect if he were two inches taller. The 6-foot-, 300-pounder led the team with 11 tackles for loss and ranks second to only Houston's Ed Oliver as the highest-graded returning interior lineman in the FBS.
"We’ll be able to shuffle the pieces around in there to get what we need," said new defensive coordinator Robb Smith. "Steven Richardson’s the guy. It starts there."
Behind Richardson are two stud linebackers in hard-hitting senior Jonathan Celestin and rising sophomore Carter Coughlin, a former four-star recruit who played well as a true freshman despite a shoulder injury that forced him to miss spring ball. Coughlin will also play on the line of scrimmage alongside fellow sophomore Tai'Yon Devers.
Devers burst onto the scene as a true freshman with a few bone-jarring hits, including this one against Colorado State:
Senior safety Duke McGhee is the leader in the secondary but sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. — the son of the former NFL star — is earning the most offseason headlines. A month after his father threatened transfer during the boycott, Fleck urged him to stay, which he ultimately did.
“He can do a lot of things,” he said of Winfield. “He is one of the best athletes, and I think one of the best people. He is an unbelievable young man.”
Notable Player Losses
QB Mitch Leidner, WR Drew Wolitarsky, OT Jonah Pirsig, C Tyler Moore, G Connor Mayes, DE Gaelin Elmore, CB Jalen Myrick, S Damarius Travis
At his best, Mitch Leidner was an average dual-threat quarterback who delivered a few huge wins. At his worst, he had no business being on a Big Ten roster. His departure brings opportunity for an improved offense but there is still uncertainty at the position.
Receiver Drew Wolitarsky is gone after 130 career catches, as is longtime starting tackle Jonah Pirsig. Interior linemen Tyler Moore (Oklahoma State) and Connor Mayes (TCU) both transferred after the season.
Defensively, the secondary took a hit with Jalen Myrick and Damarius Travis graduating. Myrick was a sixth-round draft pick after leading the team with 11 passes defended. And Gaelin Elmore transferred to East Carolina.
Notable Player Additions
QB Seth Green, C Conner Olson, CB Kiondre Thomas
Either Conor Rhoda or Demry Croft will start Week 1. The loser will get first crack if the winner fails. But waiting behind them is redshirt freshman Seth Green, a former local star who transferred to Allen, Texas, and committed to Oregon before backtracking and joining the gophers.
Two redshirt freshmen are competing for starting spots: center Conner Olson and corner Kiondre Thomas. Thomas is a 6-foot, 180-pounder from Arkansas who actually received interest from coordinator Robb Smith when Smith was Razorbacks' coordinator.
It's easy to predict a 6-1 or 7-0 start for the Gophers this season with five of their first seven games at home. But do not overlook non-conference foes Oregon State (away) and Middle Tennessee (home). The Blue Raiders have the offensive firepower for an upset bid.
|Thursday, Aug. 31||vs. Buffalo|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Oregon State|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Middle Tennessee|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Maryland|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Purdue|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Michigan State|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. Illinois|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Iowa|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Michigan|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Nebraska|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at Northwestern|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Wisconsin|