In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
No. 69 Minnesota
It's no longer "Year Zero" at Minnesota. Does that mean improvements from a team that looked lost and overwhelmed in P.J. Fleck's first season?
Maybe. The Gophers have a lot of returnees but just as many questions entering the season.
Carter Coughlin, Thomas Barber, Antoine Winfield Jr. and the defense is good enough to keep them in games, but a freshman quarterback needs to do something for an offense that was anemic last year.
2017 Record: 5-7 (2-7, Big Ten)
P.J. Fleck says he's not concerned with wins and losses right now. That's good because last year felt like a big regression for a program that averaged nearly eight wins per year from 2012-16 and had their five-year bowl streak snapped.
Like his first team at Western Michigan, his players showed energy late in games and were walloped by injuries but it was still an arduous season.
Head Coach: P.J. Fleck (2nd Year, 5-7)
Fleck's repeated "Year Zero" comments didn't sit well with last year's seniors but he was right; player buy-in was more important than anything else last year.
While the second-year head coach has loads of critics who can't stand the P.J. Fleck experience, he's finding players who love it, as he did in turning Western Michigan from the worst team in the country into a New Year's Six bowl team.
Clearly, he needs time. And for a program that hasn't won a Big Ten title since 'Nam (literally), they should give him all the time in the world.
RB Kobe McCrary, DT Steven Richardson, LB Jonathan Celestin, S Kendarian Handy-Holly, S Duke McGhee, P Ryan Santoso
It's a transitioning program but some losses still sting, especially on defense. Longtime starters Steven Richardson and Jonathan Celestin are gone from the front seven. Richardson had 28.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks in his career, including 11 and seven, respectively, in 2015.
Kendarian Handy-Holly transferred (walk-on at Auburn) after showing promise as a freshman and one of the Big Ten's better punters, Ryan Santoso, graduated.
Returning Offensive Players
RB Rodney Smith, WR Tyler Johnson, OT Donnell Greene, G Conner Olson, C Jared Weyler, K Emmit Carpenter
The Gophers' offense was more painful to watch than the late seasons of Entourage. They were shut out twice, completed 47 percent of their pass attempts, threw nine touchdown passes and averaged 4.8 yards per play.
With the post-spring transfer of JUCO quarterback Vic Viramontes, the Gophers' quarterback picture now features only freshmen, who will be discussed below in Player Additions.
The new quarterback has the program's best receiver since Eric Decker in junior Tyler Johnson at his disposal. The Minneapolis native was the only guy who made plays downfield last year, averaging 19.7 yards per catch and scoring seven touchdowns. Given the quarterback play, those numbers were outrageous.
"He could do a lot of things, but when he played against competition that was maybe better than him, his technique wasn’t perfected enough to get him out of some of those situations,” Fleck said this spring about Johnson's 2017 season. “[Now] he’s way more efficient in his technique and you can see that in him becoming a more efficient receiver. It’s probably the biggest adjustment he’s made."
Running back depth took a huge hit over the offseason when Kobe McCrary's exhaustion of eligibility was followed by a season-ending leg injury for Shannon Brooks. While they still have senior workhorse Rodney Smith (626 career carries), the group needs another playmaker or two.
Like many positions, the offensive line was in flux for most of the season as they fought injuries and inconsistency. Senior center Jared Weyler is back after missing half the season.. Frankly, the line needs to be a lot better this year under new coach Brian Callahan, their former tight ends coach.
Returning Defensive Players
DE/LB Carter Coughlin, LB Kamal Martin, LB Thomas Barber, LB Blake Cashman, CB Antoine Winfield Jr., CB Kiondre Thomas, CB Antonio Shenault, S Jacob Huff,
Minnesota ranked in the nation's top 40 in several defensive categories, including scoring (36th), passing yards per game (11th) and total defense (30th), and while the unit was far superior to the offense, they still allowed 4.9 yards per carry (92nd) and were mediocre in applying pressure (55th in sack rate, 66th in tackles for loss per game) and on third down (38.4 percent).
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith disputed reports that he was leaving for a job with the New England Patriots and is back for a second season. His unit is led by Carter Coughlin, a former four-star recruit from nearby Eden Prairie who passed on some big-time offers to remain in Minnesota. After recording 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last year, he was "flying around" during spring ball.
"Everything is happening so much faster for me,’’ he said in March. “I understand my job. Last year, playing run defense out of a defensive end kind of position was challenging at first. We put an install in [this spring], and I’m like, ‘Ah, I already know that.’ So, I get to work on all the little details and make it a lot better.’’
Behind him is linebacker Thomas Barber, their leading tackler with 115 takedowns, among them 10.5 tackles for loss. He and fellow upperclassmen Kamal Martin, a former high school quarterback, and Blake Cashman, a former walk-on who has 15.5 tackles for loss the last two years, lead the group.
After a strong freshman year in which he had four passes defended and one pick, Antoine Winfield Jr. missed all of Big Ten play with a hamstring injury. One of three upperclassmen projected to start in the secondary, he'll be used all over the field.
"We are going to play [Antoine] like a corner this year, at safety, you might even see him come off the edge at like an ‘R’ rush end type position to move Carter [Coughlin] to other positions,” Fleck said. “. . . He’s a heck of an asset to have on your football team because he’s so versatile, so smart, so athletic, and just have to get him on the field and keep him on the field this year.”
QB Tanner Morgan, QB Zack Annexstad, RB Nolan Edmonds, RB Mohamed Ibrahim, WR Rashod Bateman, OT Daniel Faalele, G Curtis Dunlap, DT O.J. Smith, DE Esezi Otomewo, DT Elijah Teague
Casual fans will find themselves consulting with the official roster often this season.
They'll either start a redshirt freshman in Tanner Morgan or true freshman in walk-on Zack Annexstad vs. New Mexico State. Fleck has said this offseason he loves the idea of developing a young quarterback like they did with Zach Terrell at Western Michigan. Morgan, a former WMU commit who flipped the day Fleck was introduced, appears to have the leg up entering fall camp and throws a better ball than anyone they've had in a long, long time.
Behind Rodney Smith is mostly freshmen, including redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim, who earned the praises of the staff throughout spring camp.
“I think [he is] having a really good spring so far,” Fleck said of the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder . “He’s really shifty, very strong. He can go speed to power pretty quickly, but he’s a really decisive runner.”
Elsewhere, Rashod Bateman, Curtis Dunlap and Daniel Faalele were all four-star prospects. Alabama transfer O.J. Smith should start after sitting out last year and a couple true freshmen, Esezi Otomewo and Elijah Teague, are line for immediate snaps.
The last time New Mexico State visited TCF Bank Stadium (2011), the Aggies won.
Minnesota hosts Fresno State in Week 2, their first-ever meeting with the Bulldogs. The Gophers miss three of the Big Ten East's top-four teams but still visit Ohio State. They, per usual, close the season against Wisconsin, whom they haven't beat since 2003.
|Thursday, Aug. 30||vs. New Mexico State|
|Saturday, Sept. 8||vs. Fresno State|
|Saturday, Sept. 15||vs. Miami (OH)|
|Saturday, Sept. 22||at Maryland|
|Saturday, Oct. 6||vs. Iowa|
|Saturday, Oct. 13||at Ohio State|
|Saturday, Oct. 20||at Nebraska|
|Friday, Oct. 26||vs. Indiana|
|Saturday, Nov. 3||at Illinois|
|Saturday, Nov. 10||vs. Purdue|
|Saturday, Nov. 17||vs. Northwestern|
|Saturday, Nov. 24||at Wisconsin|