Friday, January 5, 2018

Looking Ahead to Gopher Football 2018: Skill Positions

For Gopher football fans, normally early January is a time for recruiting rumors and wondering which MAC-level recruits will sign on the first Wednesday in February. But this year, with a new coaching staff and a new early December signing date, the Gophers have already locked up 26 commitments in a very un-MAC-level class (as of today it's the 30th best class in the country per 247) and are already focusing on the class of 2019.

Coach Fleck has tried to lower expectations for 2018 as much as possible, but just looking over the potential roster for next season there's plenty for Gopher fans to be excited about and give us hope 2018 will be better than last season. Today we'll focus on the offense and save defense for another day (considering I write like twice a year that will probably be in July but anyways).

The offense in 2017 was...not good. Bad even. Downright bad. Unwatchable by the end of the year. A lot of that can be attributed to poor quarterback play, lack of offensive line depth due to injuries, poor quarterback play, a young, inexperienced and injured group of receivers, and let's not forget poor quarterback play. The run offense was good again (isn't it always?) ranking 45th in the country in S&P+ but the passing offense was ranked 113th and the overall offense was 120. Of course if you watched the games you probably could have guessed that.

For 2018 we're getting younger (just a ton of true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores all over the roster) but should have better depth, more experience AND-potentially- more talent. On offense, this may/could/should/hopefully lead to a better offense, and by better offense I mean we might have finally found a quarterback.

QUARTERBACK

GONE: Conor Rhoda (graduated), Demry Croft (transfer)
RETURNING: Tanner Morgan (RS frosh), Seth Green (RS Soph)
NEW: Vic Viramontes (JUCO Soph), Nick Annexstad (fresh)

As our own MV detailed a couple of months ago on this very site, developing a QB is kinda sorta important for team success and the Gophers have been awful at this for more than a decade. Last year was no exception as Coach Fleck was not able to turn a "gold mine" of quarterbacking talent left behind by the previous staff into anything even remotely resembling a functional starting quarterback.

With Rhoda graduated and Croft transferred, there will be a new starting quarterback for 2018, and if it's anyone other than JUCO transfer Vic Viramontes, we may be in for a long 2018. While he's not a guaranteed star the Flow-a-licious Viramontes has all the tools to be a quality starter from the get-go, and what's more, unlike most JUCO transfers, he has three years of eligibility left instead of two. The top rated JUCO dual-threat QB in this class was also the California Community College Offensive Player of the Year with 1868 yards and 22 TD's through the air and just for fun another 1346 yards and 21 TDs (!!!!) on the ground.

While his passing may be further behind his ability to run the football at the moment, Viramontes should be the most accomplished passer the Gophers have had since Adam Weber (I know that's not saying much but still). He'll have the entire spring and summer to get to know OC Kirk Ciarrocca's offense, which hopefully means by the time the season rolls around the Gopher offense looks more like it did when Ciarrocca ran it at WMU than the dumpster fire that was last season.

After a redshirt season expect Morgan to be the backup. A consensus 3 star prospect out of Kentucky, he's more a classic drop-back passer than true dual threat, but should be athletic enough to keep defenses honest on the read-option when need be. While I'm not sure how ready he'd be to lead the offense right now he could be a legitimate starter down the road.

Annexstad passed up full-ride offers from legitimate schools (Cincy and Pitt) to be a preferred walk-on at Minnesota. If he doesn't earn a full scholarship, the IMG Academy product should at least be added to the school payroll as a recruiting coordinator after his masterful job helping to reel in a couple of giant (both figuratively and literally) teammates and recruits along the offensive line.

As a prospect he's very intruiging- I do not follow recruiting very closely but I do not understand how Annexstad wasn't more heavily recruited. Anyone? I would love an answer. As a 6'3 three star prospect he beat out a legit 4 star prospect at a Florida powerhouse program and helped lead them to an undefeated season. I get it if he's at some backwater school, but IMG? Anyway, while it makes no sense his addition is definitely Minnesota's gain and it'll be interesting to watch his development.

And that's basically your QB depth chart. I am waiting for the announcement that Seth Green is either switching positions or transferring, and am surprised it hasn't happened already.

RUNNING BACK

GONE: Kobe McCrary
RETURNING: Shannon Brooks (Sr), Rodney Smith (Sr), Jonathan Femi-Cole (RS Jr), Mohamed Ibrahim (RS Fr), Dominik London (RS Fr)
NEW: Nolan Edmonds (fr), Bryce Williams (fr)

This remains the one position the Gophers seem to churn out good players no matter the coaching staff, the scheme or the recruiting rankings, and this season should be no different. Smith is a stud (977 rushing last year and also returned a kickoff for a TD) and should be one of the B1G's best backs. If Brooks is healthy and can stay healthy it's as good a 1-2 punch as you'll find in the conference. McCrary was fantastic subbing for the oft-injured Brooks, and the big fella will be missed as a punishing complement to Smith.

If Brooks struggles to stay healthy again in 2018 it opens the door for Edmonds, considered one of the top 25 backs in the country by 247. Femi-Cole is Canadian so therefore obviously awesome, while Ibrahim and London were both 3 star recruits who redshirted last year. The battle for the third spot will be likely be Edmonds vs Femi-Cole but maybe one of the redshirt frosh's pop. Expect Williams to redshirt.

WIDE RECEIVER

GONE:  Eric Carter (grad), Melvin Holland Jr (transfer), Hunter Register (transfer), Rashad Still (transfer)
RETURNING: Will Reger (Sr), Tyler Johnson (Jr), Matt Morse (Jr),  Phillip Howard (RS Soph), Mark Williams (RS Soph), Drew Hmielewski (RS Soph), Clay Geary (RS Soph), Demetrius Douglas (Soph), Chris Autman-Bell (RS Fr), Harry Van Dyne (RS Frosh),
NEW: Paul Gossage (Jr- transfer from Eastern Ill), Yale Van Dyne (RS Soph- walk-on transfer from Iowa. Seriously), Rashod Bateman, (Fr), Erik Gibson (Fr), Jornell Mans (Fr)

Did I forget anybody? Holy moly that's a lot of bodies at wide receiver, and as you can probably tell, it includes very few upperclassmen. And yet, this is a position group that should get you very excited. With all due respect to the guys who left, the Gophers lost very little. Carter and Still were expected to be big contributors last year yet had 6 catches combined. That is not a typo. We had hoped Holland and Register would finally live up to their recruiting hype yet neither had a single catch all season. See ya and thanks for everything gentlemen.

What returns is a lot of youth with plenty of potential but also some production and experience. Now if we can just keep everybody healthy they could take a big step forward. It starts with Johnson, who will enter the season as one of the B1G's best; he basically WAS the passing offense before injuries slowed him and eventually ended his season. Back healthy he could/should have a monster 2018: the question will be who can step up around him? Thankfully there are a ton of interesting- and dare I say talented- candidates.

Besides Johnson there's only three other upperclassmen on the roster: I don't know what to expect of Reger or Morse as both played sparingly last year. Morse was a special teams guy while Reger started the last game vs Wisconsin because by that point it was that or start pulling people out of the stands to play wideout. Gossage was a name I had not heard of before writing this post but he was apparently solid at 1-AA Eastern Illinois before transferring here. At 6'3 he's a name to keep an eye on.

After those three it's all sophomores and freshmen but it's a pretty fun group: Autman-Bell was apparently pushing for immediate playing time in spring and fall camp before a preseason injury ended his season before it started. Douglas played a big role as a slot receiver before- wait for it- injuries ended his season too. Due to those injuries Williams and Howard both got better as the season went on and got more and more playing time. Howard tied for third in catches last year with...11. For the whole season. If that doesn't sum up last year's offensive problems I don't know what does. That's not a knock on him, just that our third leading receiver only had 11 damn catches in 12 games.

The other returning guys either didn't play much or redshirted. Your guess is as good as mine if anyone from that group can break out so we'll see. The Van Dyne brothers sound like the Winklevoss twins or sinister brothers from a prep school movie who are out to get our hero because he's from the wrong side of the tracks/steals their girl/stole the idea for Facebook and won't give them credit for it etc etc. But this couldn't be further from the truth as they are in fact fine, upstanding brothers from Kansas who are just here to help the Gophers achieve our #ROWSBOWL dream of 2019 thank you very much. And sure, the older one made one terrible mistake by going to Iowa but quickly realized it and got the hell out of there so let's not hold that against him, ok?

I am trying to temper my expectations for Bateman as, well, you're probably aware of Minnesota's rich tradition of extremely productive 4 star wide receiver recruits hahahaha just kidding. 4 star/high profile receivers have flamed out in spectacular fashion here so much so that if Bateman just stays on campus for three years it should be considered a major accomplishment, regardless of whether he actually plays.

That said...he should play, or at least will be given every opportunity. Bateman had a huge senior high school season which resulted in 247 bumping him from a 3 to 4 star prospect, and by December he received actual offers from actual helmet schools (or fake offers if you're a certain Nebraska troll) like Georgia, Tennessee, A&M and Va Tech. Watching his highlight film is enough to warm your soul on even the coldest of the January nights and give you dreams of division titles, Rose Bowls and beyond.

So as I said I'm TRYING to temper expectations for him but am struggling mightily. But isn't that what January is all about? Manns and Gibson are solid 3 star prospects who probably redshirt if we can ever keep everybody healthy.

OK so this got wordy, so we'll save the o-line and tight ends for another day.

1 comment:

  1. Gonna need to make flashcards for that receiver group in the noncon, but looking forward to seeing them produce. it can't be any worse, right?? (laughs nervously...)

    ReplyDelete