TIGHT ENDGONE: Brandon Lingen, Nate Wozniak (graduated)
RETURNING: Colton Beebee, Bryce Witham (RS Jr), Ko Kieft (RS Soph), Jake Paulson, Clayton Witherspoon (RS Fr)
NEW: Brevyn Spann-Ford (Fr)
This is the position group that is by far the biggest question mark on the team. Thankfully, unlike the previous staff who played roughly seven tight ends in every formation, this staff usually/ideally only needs one, so it's not as big of a deal. But Lingen and Wozniak basically were the tight end depth chart last year as Kieft is the only returning TE on the roster with a collegiate catch (and he has TWO!).
Kieft and Witham (who only played 4 games last year due to season ending injury) likely open spring camp as the leaders for the starting job, but by no means are they the favorites. Beebee played almost entirely on special teams last year despite the injury to Witham, and is likely a blocking TE for short-yardage situations at 270 pounds. Witherspoon is a walk-on from Eden Prairie who redshirted last year.
The two intriguing names to watch are Paulson and incoming true frosh Spann-Ford. Paulson is a big dude listed at 260 pounds and based on his high school scouting reports is a good athlete who moves well for a big guy, and should provide the pass catching and route-running abilities this staff wants at the position. He was a consensus 3 star out of Louisville, KY (you better damn well be pronouncing it LUH-ville as the good lord intended) whose offer list included his home town Cardinals as well as P5 schools Illinois Pitt, and Purdue as well as 2017 undefeated national champs UCF (at least in their own minds).
Spann-Ford is the best athlete of the bunch, and oh by the way is also 6'7 and 245 (and while he'll be a football-only guy at The U he's apparently gotten real interest for hoops from D1 programs). If had enrolled early there was a real chance of him starting as a true freshman but because he doesn't get here until fall camp, barring a complete tire fire from everybody else this spring, he'll likely be too far behind everybody else to even get on the two deep by the opener vs New Mexico State (if this game isn't available on Aggie Vision we're all rioting).
It's likely his chances to play early will depend as much on how the other guys do this spring as how well he plays in fall camp. If the coaches find a couple of guys they like then it makes it pretty easy to redshirt Spann-Ford then unleash him on the B1G in 2019. But make no mistake, the kid is a talen and the Gophers got an absolute steal here. Because he committed so early (back in June) to a school like Minnesota, the recruiting hype and his offer list never really took off. While he did get offers from a few P5 schools in Iowa State, Mizzou and West Virginia with Sparty showing some serious interest, had he kept his recruitment open and/or played at a Metro school instead of up in St Cloud and/or in a larger football recruiting state, his offer list would have been substantial.
He has the size and athleticism coaches dream about for the position, especially in a spread offense. With such a young team at every position and expectations relatively low for the season, IF Spann-Ford shows he's ready to contribute now the opportunity could very well be there for him to get on the field ASAP.
OFFENSIVE LINEGONE: Vincent Calhoun, Garrison Wright (grad), Nick Connelly (retired last Oct due to injury)
RETURNING: Donnell Greene, Jared Weyler (RS Sr), Bronson Dovich, Quinn Oseland, (RS Jr), Ben Davis (Jr), Conor Olson, Sam Schlueter (RS Soph), Blais Andries, Nathan Bursch, Eric Rousemiller, Axel Ruschmeyer, Kyle Sassack, John Michael Schmitz (RS Fr)
NEW: Jason Dickson (JUCO Jr), Austin Beier, Nathan Boe, Curtis Dunlap Jr, Daniel Faalele, Grant Norton, Jack York (Fr)
Over the last 10 years, the only position group the Gophers have been arguably worse at recruiting and developing than quarterback is the offensive line. Which is all the more frustrating when you consider the previous staffs were supposed to be operating some variation of a power run offense. Per Gophersports.com since 2006 (the last of the Mason "glory" years) Minnesota has only had one All-B1G first or second team o-lineman: both were Zac Epping in 2014 as he was 1st team media and 2nd team coaches. And that's it. How many o-linemen from this power run B1G school have been drafted since 2006, you ask? Zero. None. Zilch. Nada.
While I will go to my grave believing firing Glen Mason at the end of the 2006 season was the right decision (and that hiring Timmy Brewster was the 1000% wrong decision), I will admit Mase was incredible at developing an O-line. The Gophers have been trying- and failing- to replicate his success ever since. Hopefully (and this site IS Still Got Hope after all), this is the year we get back to recruiting and developing real offensive lines.
When Fleck inherited this team a year ago he had six (!!!) healthy offensive linemen for spring camp, and was down to four by the time he could even think about a spring game. The game 1 depth chart had 9 actual players plus a true freshman they hoped to not play (Andries) on the o-line, and was down to 6 or 7 healthy non-true frosh linemen by seasons end. Faced with this kind of attrition there wasn't much even a wizard like line coach Ed Warinner could do. So he and Fleck attacked that problem in recruiting with not only quantity but quality (all seven incoming recruits were rated at least 3 stars per 247), and with a year of development for all the returning guys under Warinner, this group has a chance to take a BIG step forward in 2018.
Let's stop here to recognize how important Warinner is to this team: Fleck gets a lot of hype for being an ace recruiter and rightfully so, but Warinner should get the bulk of the credit for reeling in the best O-line class Minnesota has had in the internet recruiting era. He's one of the best o-line coaches in the country as he was named Coach Scoop's Offensive line Coach of the Year twice in 2012 and 2014. But he's also a hell of a recruiter as Rivals named him one of the top 25 recruiters in the country back in 2014. Sure, he was at Ohio State then and while you might think the Buckeyes recruit themselves, his consistency in not just recruiting top high school linemen year after year but turning them into very good college players who go on to get drafted in the pros cannot be overstated.
You better believe that kind of track record was a big reason the Gophers landed some of the line talent they did in this class, the kind of blue chippers we never dreamed of getting here before. The O-line has a real chance to make the biggest strides of any position group on the team in 2018, and if they can do that, it's going to make breaking in a new quarterback a far easier task. It's not going out on much of a limb to say the biggest key to a much improved 2018 season for the Gophers isn't so much who plays quarterback or which receivers emerge, but whether Warinner can mold his o-line into the kind of group we haven't had since the Mason years.
Thanks to yet another season of a ridiculous run of injuries for the offensive line, for the first time in a long time the Gophers should have not only five actual guys for a second string that have some experience and talent, but could go three deep at some spots as well. I know, I know, what a concept!
Let's start with what we know: Greene, Olson, and Weyler should be opening day starters at tackle, guard and center respectively. Greene has a legit chance this season to end the All-B1G and undrafted drought for Gopher linemen. He's everything you'd want in a left tackle with size (6'7 320), strength and athleticism. IF he can turn into the dominant LT many are predicting, that would go a long ways to solving the offensive line woes we've had in recent/every season. Olson started all 12 games last year with the first six at guard, then shifted to center for the last six after Weyler went down for the year due to injury. He's rock solid and will be back at guard full-time. After starting eight games as a guard in 2016, Weyler seamlessly shifted to center last season and looked good before he got hurt. All signs are that he'll be back to full health and ready to go.
The battles for the other guard and tackle spots should be fascinating, and filled with guys with talent and/or experience. Let's start at tackle: there will be at least four guys battling for this job (I'm not ruling out a fifth from Australia who is roughly the size of Australia but we'll get to that). Last year's week one starter at RT Connelly unfortunately had to retire mid-season due to injuries, which threw now RS Soph Schlueter into the fire as he started the final five games of the year.
He likely starts spring camp atop the depth chart but is really going to have to fight to keep that job. The coaches not wanting to play Andries last year had nothing to do with talent and everything to do with the conventional wisdom of not playing true freshmen on the line if at all possible. "Blaise of Glory" Andries was the top recruit in Minnesota a year ago, a consensus high 3 star recruit and a top 30 tackle in the entire country. The kid is a stud and it's likely only a matter of time before he starts at one of the tackle spots.
But whether the future is now for Andries depends not just on beating out Schlueter but also Dickson. A transfer from Diablo Valley JC in California he comes in as a high 3 star recruit who had big boy offers from a bunch of P5 schools including Arizona St, Colorado, TCU, Texas Tech and UCLA. Were I a betting man (and if they actually had on Gopher football positional competitions) my money would be on Dickson to grab the RT job.
Another RS frosh to keep an eye on is Sassack, a three star commit out of Michigan a year ago.
The wild card in the RT competition is Faalele (pronounced Fa-ah-lay-lay), an enormous, athletic and very raw high three star prospect originally from Australia. You've probably read Andy Staples excellent piece on him in SI from last spring but if you haven't, do yourself a favor and go read it right now. I remember reading that story last year and never in a million years did I think he'd land in Minnesota. And yet here we are. Discovered by a recruiter from the University of Hawaii a couple of years ago, Faalele decided to move to Melbourne, Australia to Florida and attend IMG Academy with no experience playing football. He practiced with the team in 2016 and last year as a high school senior was his first time ever playing in a football game.
To say he's raw is an understatement but my god his potential is basically limitless. Donnell Greene is a massive human being by any measure at 6'7 and 320 pounds, yet at 6'9 and 400 pounds Faalele is two inches taller and EIGHTY POUNDS HEAVIER! That is insane. And what's more, if you've seen a picture of him or watched his O-line-porn highlight videos, he doesn't look like a 400 pounder should. When I think of a 400 pound football player I think of former NFL defensive tackle Gilbert Brown, like somebody who ate every pie at Bakers Square and then decided to just eat the building too. Yet Faalele looks more like an oversized linebacker.
Usually you want to redshirt incoming freshmen offensive linemen because they're just not big enough or strong enough yet, but obviously that's not the issue for Faalele. He'll likely test as one of the strongest players on the team, and is a good athlete too. No, for the big Aussie the issue is reps and technique because he's so new to the game. As we've outlined already, the Gophers have plenty of depth and talent at tackle that they can afford to redshirt Faalele this year then unleash his world-destroying abilities upon the B1G in 2019.
And yet... I can't help but wonder what if he's just too good to keep off the field? He's an early enrollee so he'll be here for spring ball. What if he just destroys the Gopher defense in practice? What if he ragdolls the upper classmen defensive linemen play after play and drill after drill? Faalele truly is a special talent, the kind we just don't get at Minnesota (especially on the line). His offer list included everybody who is anybody in college football (including the two schools who just played in the National Championship). I'm not saying it's probable he could jump into the tackle rotation by this fall, but it's certainly possible.
Which finally brings us to who starts at the other guard spot opposite Conor Olson. Oseland or Dovich will begin the spring atop the depth chart as they're the only two outside of Olson and Weyler with any experience. Oseland started two games last season, one at guard vs Middle Tennessee and the other at RT vs Nebraska. Dovich was a reserve guard and center all of last season.
While both could take major strides this spring and look like a quality starter, the guy to watch here is the true frosh- and Faalele's high school teammate- Curtis Dunlap Jr. A consensus four star and blue chip recruit (His offer list was basically everybody- Georgia, FSU, LSU, Michigan, Oklahoma, USC... you get the idea), 247 had him as a top 200 overall recruit and the #6 guard in the entire country. Dunlap is almost as big as Faalele at a listed 368 pounds and is just an absolute monster. Originally a U of Florida commit, he reopened his recruiting in early December when the Gators changed coaching staffs and the Gophers pounced.
We mentioned Faalele is the kind of recruit we just don't see here, but so is Dunlap, and perhaps even more so: like the big Aussie strength will not be an issue for him, but he was also as three year starter at IMG and played tackle and center as well as guard. If there's ever been a day one starter on the offensive line as a true freshman, this is it. He's surprisingly athletic and mobile for a guy of his size and his talent and ability is as high as anybody's on the team at any position. He's also enrolling early so will be here for spring ball, so if he looks even close to ready he could (should?) be the starter by the season opener.
Bursch, a converted high school tight end, could also be in the mix at guard. Davis, a junior, plus Rousemiller and Ruschmeyer are all walk-ons who redshirted last year so...sure?
Backup center could be Dovich if/when he doesn't win the starting guard spot, but don't rule out RS frosh Schmitz either. A consensus three star recruit a year ago from Illinois by all the recruiting services, Scout had him rated as the #1 center in the Midwest. I THINK the other four incoming freshmen linemen will all red shirt but we shall see.
So to close, here's the best guess at your two deep:
LT Greene (Sr)
Andries (RS Fr) OR Faalele (Fr)
LG Dunlap (Fr)
Oseland (Rs Jr)
C Weyler (Sr)
Schmitz (RS Fr)
RG Olson (RS Soph)
Dovich (RS Jr)
RT Dickson (Jr)
Schlueter (RS Soph)