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Early 2017 Wisconsin football preview: Week 13 at Minnesota

The Daily Gopher looks at the new regime.

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

The rivalry between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Minnesota Gophers could get interesting with a new sheriff in Minneapolis.

Former Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck was hired by Minnesota to replace Tracy Claeys, and as the energetic leader of the program has said, he wants to make the Gophers ELITE.

Minnesota will have to find a new starting quarterback and leading wide receiver, along with replacing a good chunk of its secondary.

The Daily Gopher’s Blake Ruane gave his thoughts on the new regime and what Minnesota will have to build on heading into the 2017 season.

Row the Boat has officially come to Minnesota. With all the controversy at the end of last year, with the players threatening to boycott the bowl game, Tracy Claeys being fired, and P.J. Fleck heading to the Twin Cities from Kalamazoo, whats the feeling now that a new regime is in place for the program? Have there been any noticeable changes, and how has the team moved on from last year?

It’s been a complete 180 since P.J. Fleck was hired. The turmoil that consumed the program in December and early January feels like a distant memory at this point. For as much talk as there was regarding a possible mass exodus after Tracy Claeys was fired, there have only been a handful of transfers, aside from three players who were facing expulsion due to the university’s conduct investigation. It’s much too early to know how good this team will be, but the buy-in from players during spring practice has been encouraging.

Fleck has not been shy about bringing his “Row the Boat” culture—and personality—to Minnesota. No one is going to mistake Fleck for Claeys. Whereas Claeys had to be coaxed in front of a camera, Fleck is all over the place. He’s trying to win over the state of Minnesota as much as he is trying to win over the players. It helps that the program isn’t a dumpster fire. They’ve won at least eight games in three of the last four seasons. The program hasn’t lacked success, but it has lacked energy. Claeys won nine games last season, but attendance declined, the trophy case emptied out, and the team blew second-half leads against four top-25 opponents.

We’ll see how things play out on the field this fall, but Fleck has certainly brought a much-needed positive energy off the field.

Who are the key contributors coming back for the Gophers?

Running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are the marquee returners on offense. The duo combined for 1,808 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns last season. With so much uncertainty under center, it’s a safe bet the offense will feature heavy doses of both Smith and Brooks until the passing game gets going. The Gophers graduate one starter on the offensive line and saw two others transfer out this spring, so health and depth will be issues, considering the Gophers have had just five offensive linemen healthy for spring practice due to multiple offseason surgeries.

On defense, senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson will be a third-year starter and a large obstacle up the middle for opposing offenses. Behind him, the Gophers are stacked at linebacker with last year’s leading tackler, senior Jonathan Celestin, captaining a young and talented linebacker corps that gained a wealth of experience last year. Minnesota will have to make due with a scary lack of depth in the secondary, but the return of sophomore safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. is a huge boost for the Gopher defense.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Minnesota vs Washington State
Jonathan Celestin rushes the passer during Minnesota’s Holiday Bowl win over Washington State.
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Who will they have to replace from last year’s team?

Goodbye Mitch Leidner, for better or for worse. The three-year starter at quarterback was a polarizing figure in his career as a Gopher, to say the least, but Minnesota will look to a young and inexperienced group of signal callers for his replacement. The competition to replace him is between senior former walk-on Conor Rhoda, who led the Gophers to a road win over Maryland last season in his lone career start, and redshirt sophomore Demry Croft, who redshirted last season after backing up Leidner as a freshman. I believe the staff was prepared to ride Rhoda through the fall season, but Croft emerged this spring as an unexpected contender and, after a strong performance in the spring game, is arguably the favorite to take over under center.

Drew Wolitarsky, the team's leading receiver (by far) a season ago, is gone. But I'll have more on the wide receiver group in a bit.

The secondary takes a big hit, losing starters Damarius Travis (graduation), Jalen Myrick (graduation), and KiAnte Hardin (expulsion). With two open cornerback spots, I expect junior Antonio Shenault to claim one of them. Beyond Shenault, the Gophers will have just four scholarship players at the cornerback position, and one of them tore his ACL and his meniscus in the bowl game. I’m a little less concerned about the safety position, where Winfield returns. Senior Duke McGhee could take over for Travis at the strong safety spot, but to do that he’ll need to stop getting ejected for targeting. The Gophers also have two impact freshmen at the position who could see the field early in their careers.

Which players could be breakout candidates?

I’m going to take a leap of faith on wide receiver Melvin Holland, Jr. It’s been well documented that the Gophers are in desperate need of playmakers at the wide receiver position, and for whatever reason Holland hasn’t seen the field last two seasons despite reports (and video evidence) that he tears it up in practice. While he has toiled on the sidelines, Minnesota’s travel roster has included as many as three walk-on wide receivers at times, and the results have been predictably awful. But I think the coaching change will benefit Holland, and I’m hoping that a fresh pair of eyes will see what this kid can bring to the passing game. It helps that Fleck and new wide receivers coach Matt Simon had success at this position at Western Michigan.

Tai’yon Devers is a breakout candidate at defensive end. The sophomore was a human highlight reel with three strip sacks during the non-conference slate last season, but he all but disappeared against Big Ten competition. The Gophers could use a consistent pass-rushing threat on the edge, and I’m hopeful that Devers can develop into a force to be reckoned with. He and sophomore linebacker Carter Coughlin have been practicing at the “R” position—a versatile role within the 4-3 where they’ll either rush the edge or drop into coverage—and thrived there during the spring game.

Which position battles are worth watching this spring?

Obviously the quarterback position has received the most scrutiny, but the wide receiver position is what I’ve been keeping a close eye on. The Gophers have decent talent at the position, yet the previous coaching staff never seemed capable of developing it. Fleck and Simon developed an NFL wide receiver at Western Michigan in Corey Davis, and I’m excited to see what they can do with the wide receivers at Minnesota. Because as much as people like to put the blame for the Gophers’ passing game woes on Leidner, his receivers often weren’t much help. I was also curious to see the competition at cornerback, but redshirt freshman Kiondre Thomas appears to have solidified a starting spot opposite Shenault. The question of who will back up either of them is something that the staff will have to figure out during fall camp.