The 2017 season- aka Year Zero/Season 1 of the PJ Fleck Era- wasn't much fun. The Gophers struggled to a 5-7 season, and to be honest, looking at what was left of the roster by the end of the year, it was almost surprising their record wasn't worse. The team lacked both depth and experienced talent (and at some positions, both), so when things went wrong and/or guys got hurt, Minnesota just didn't have any answers.
The 2018 season is off to a good start with a 48-10 thumping of former Sun Belt Conference (do they allow Aggievision in FCS?) member New Mexico State. The Gophers may have hopefully/maybe/finally found a quarterback, the offense in general looked much improved, and the defense was solid. Of course, the Aggies might be the worst team Minnesota plays all year, and the Fresno State Bulldogs squad they face this Saturday should be much better. The question this week, and for most of the weeks going forward, is how will this still very young Gophers squad fare against better competition?
While you never want to overreact to week 1 results, something that showed up in the game tape is Minnesota at the very least looks more talented- and deeper- than last year's squad. That in itself should give hope to Gophers fans that while we should expect some struggles and bumps in the road this season (including possibly this Saturday!), at least the talent on the roster (and the new redshirt rule) should give the coaching staff more options and solutions to fix problems than they had a year ago. Last season the only two position groups the Gophs had both depth AND talent at were linebacker and running back. Seriously, that's it. Everywhere else they either had some talent (much of it very young and inexperienced) but zero quality depth or other places, like oh I don't know say QUARTERBACK, they had neither talent nor depth.
Minnesota's QB combination of senior Conor Rhoda and RS Soph Demry Croft was one of the worst in college football last season. Rhoda was a walk-on who, unlike our current starter, just wasn't cut out to be a B1G starting QB. Effort was never a question but two different coaching staffs discovered they were pretty limited with what they could do with him under center (or would it behind center since everyone is out of the shotgun now?). With Croft, talent was never the issue, but availability certainly was. He couldn't get on the field with the Claeys' staff, and last season he couldn't stay out of Fleck's doghouse, and transferred in the off-season.
Neither of this season's QB's on the two deep will be All-B1G this season, but either should be an upgrade on what the Gophs had last year. Annexstad looked more comfortable and confident in his reads and throws than any Minnesota QB since Adam Weber. As a true frosh it's going to get a lot more difficult and the learning curve will be steep- don't surprised to see more possessions like we saw in the first quarter where they have trouble moving the ball- but he showed the tools and the attitude to make improvements and adjustments as the season goes on. Backup Tanner Morgan is only a RS frosh but has been learning and absorbing the offense for more than a year and should at least be productive if he has to play. Again, neither will be world beaters this year, but their talent should allow the offense to do more of what they want to do compared to last season.
Another part of the passing game woes in 2017 were a total lack of receiving options. Tyler Johnson had a breakout year but that was pretty much it. They desperately needed a talented vet like Rashad Still or a host of juniors to step up and make plays but none of them did. All of them barely saw the field and, like Croft, transferred out in the off-season. The rest of the guys were just SO young and inexperienced they couldn't do much to scare defenses. Once Johnson went out late in the year he took the passing game with him.
This season the two deep is still pretty young but we saw already in the NMSU game they should be much improved. Johnson remains an All-B1G caliber wideout and he'll be the bellcow of the passing game. But it was encouraging to see more guys than just him make plays- true frosh Rashod Bateman is the kind of wideout that we haven't had here since...I don't even know. He's a true blue-chip talent that's starting from day 1 and should only get better as the season progresses. Both Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas looked good coming back from injuries, Philip Howard was solid last year as a RS frosh and should contribute this year, and Seth Green remains an intriguing guy at "pass catcher". Tight ends remain a total wildcard, but considering how little they got out of the position last year and how much better the receiver talent and depth looks to be this season, that's a position they can figure out as they go.
The third big issue with both the passing game and offense in general from a season ago was the depth and talent on the offensive line. Wait, check that- that's generally been an issue for this program since Glen Mason was fired in 2006, but last year was especially difficult. The starting 5 they trotted out in week 1 and that two deep in general to start the year wasn't bad, but by November they were struggling just to put a starting five on the field, let alone fill out a depth chart.
As mentioned, health and talent on the O-line have been an issue for this program under multiple coaching staffs for far too long, but there's at least potential for this season to be the year it changes. And not just because of an uptick in recruiting better O-linemen; the NCAA's new rule allowing players to play up to 4 games in a season and not have it count as a year of eligibility will help every school with depth or injury issues at every position, but it would seem to be especially helpful for the Gophers and their O-line. Last season the staff rightfully did everything possible to keep the redshirt on true frosh behemouth Blaise Andries, which took some kind of combination of hope and luck as by year end Andries was often the 7th or 8th O-linemen on the depth chart. It worked as he'll have four years of eligibility to play.
This year, at least availability of able bodies won't be an issue- if the Gophers run into injury issues yet again, they'll be able to rotate in a deep stable of true freshmen without hurting their eligibility. It's never ideal to play true freshmen- especially on the line- but if the situation requires them only to dress or even take a few snaps for a few games (as was the case last year when they couldn't do it), they'll be able to.
That said, the quality and talent available SHOULD be better too. The left side has three experienced starters in seniors Donnell Greene (T) and Jared Weyler (C), and RS soph Connor Olson (G). Behind them are seasoned juniors Quinn Oseland and Bronson Dovich. The right side...ok yeah they get REALLY young really fast: Starting RT Sam Schlueter played in 10 games and started the final six last year as a freshman and the aforementioned Andries has been shifted inside to start at guard. Behind them, as well as at center, it's nothing but true and redshirt freshmen.
Sure, that's not ideal, but if the recruiting rankings are to be believed they should be a talent upgrade on some of the guys they've had to throw into the mix in desperation in years past. Two especially intriguing options are the IMG kids G Curtis Dunlap (6'5 and 370 pounds!) and T Daniel Faalele (roughly 700 feet tall and weighing 3 tons). It may be more of a question of when not if those two receive more and more regular playing time, but here's at least hoping the line gets better health luck than past years so they can play Dunlap, Faalele and any of the other younger because they're ready, not because they have to.
Ok this got wordier than I planned, so on defense, let's just say the same things apply. Minnesota won't be better at DT than last season but at least they'll potentially have more depth, and they returned everybody at DE. The LB's continue to be the strength of the team, and while the depth behind them are senior Julian Huff then a bunch of freshmen, again that new redshirt rule can help with any potential depth issues. The secondary... let's just hope everybody stays healthy.
The week one demolishing of NMSU was great and fun and SO needed for this fan base. And while there's going to be struggles in the week to come, that week one win showed us that the staff should have more talented options- and hopefully solutions- to combat the issues that will inevitably rise with a young team. At the very least if Minnesota runs into injury issues again this season, they'll have more able and ready bodies available, which will hopefully lead to an improved year 1/season 2 under PJ Fleck.
SKI-U-MAH and #RTB.