Dienhart: Minnesota Golden Gophers' offseason to-do list
The Tracy Claeys era has begun. And, change is brewing … it has been for several months. The program is on solid footing, having been to a bowl each of the last four seasons. But the staff has been altered with a new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach and offensive line coach on board.
There is momentum coming off a bowl win that capped a disappointing 6-7 season, but this shapes up as an interesting and critical season for the program under Claey’s stewardship.
While the offense—which ranked No. 13 in the Big Ten in scoring (22.5 ppg), 11th in rushing (144.1 ypg) and 12th overall (358.9 ypg)—was a big focus in the spring, the defense also began rebuilding the secondary.
Here is Minnesota’s offseason to-do list.
1. Develop the o-line. This unit was impacted by injury last season and never dominated. But the front is looking better. Thank JC transfers Garrison Wright and Vincent Calhoun. The big and physical Wright has fit in at left tackle, while Calhoun is a big force at right guard. In fact, Calhoun was one of the biggest surprises of the spring. He can get a big-time push inside. New line coach Bart Miller likes what he has to work with. The top unit figures to be LT Chad Fahning, LG Connor Mayes, C Tyler Moore; RG Calhoun; RT Jonah Pirsig.
2. Hone the wideouts. This attack has a seemingly endless quest for go-to wideouts who can stretch the field. With KJ Maye gone, Rashad Still could be the guy who is a vertical threat. Still is a big target at 6-5 who can work in traffic and is a nice red zone threat. He caught just 18 passes last year but figures to amp that number up significantly in 2016. Who will be other playmakers?
3. Work on pounding the rock. The Gophers have a nice stable of running backs led by Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, a tandem that combined to run for 1,379 yards last season in addition to scoring nine TDs. Redshirt freshmen Jonathan Femi-Cole and James Johannesson also turned heads. In fact, Johannesson was a big spring surprise. The rushing game has been the staple of this program from many years. And, with it appearing to be a strength again, lean on it and lean on it some more.
4. Develop the secondary. This has been a program strength for several years. Last season, the Gophers ranked 11th in the nation in pass defense, allowing 179.5 yards per game. But the Gophers lost two All-Big Ten corners in Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Jalen Myrick, who has a ton of playing time, should step in fine. Who is the other corner? A guy to watch is sophomore KiAnte Hardin, who has gotten stronger. Antonio Schenault got his feet wet as a true freshman last year and also is in the mix. And Claeys is high on redshirt freshman Ray Buford. At safety, keep an eye on Damarius Travis, who received a medical redshirt after missing all but one game because of injury. Some staffers felt he could have been the team’s top DB in 2015. Former walk-on Kunle Ayinde took over for Travis. Ace Rogers is another player coming off injury but figures in the mix. Duke McGhee and Dior Johnson also are in the mix.
5. Keep QB Mitch Leidner slim. He was limited in the spring coming off left foot surgery. But he committed to slimming down. At the bowl game, Leidner weighed almost 250 pounds. He lost almost 20 pounds, which has to help with his mobility. He’s a senior and needs to go out with a flurry and add lift to an aerial game that too often is pedestrian.
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