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An early look at the Minnesota Golden Gophers

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The Daily Gopher gives us a look at what Minnesota is bringing to the table this year.

Quick Lane Bowl - Minnesota v Georgia Tech Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It’s never too early to write about next season!

With spring football completed for college programs, and with what feels like a long offseason until late July/early August, B5Q wanted to check on the Wisconsin Badgers’ 2019 opponents—with the help of some of our SB Nation friends.

Note: These previews will not be in the chronological order of the games, but we hope to get through all of them at some point before fall camp rolls around.

The hated Minnesota Golden Gophers host the Badgers to end the season on November 30th in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Last year the Gophers won, in Madison, for the first time in forever so UW should be out for blood and also the Axe.

Our friends (yes, we Blog Boiz can keep things civil) at The Daily Gopher took some time to answer our questions and only mention having the Axe once. Thanks guys!

What are the overall thoughts about the program heading into the 2019 season? Any major changes on the coaching staff?

Blake Ruane: Two words: Cautious optimism. Year 3 of the P.J. Fleck era is shaping up to be a bit of a “show me” season for the Gophers’ head coach. He finished strong last year with dominant wins over Purdue, Wisconsin, and Georgia Tech, but we’ll see if he can build off that. Gopher fans have a tenuous grasp of the old adage that progress is quite frequently non-linear, and it would be nice to see the program continue to take steps forward under Fleck and co. With how wide open the Big Ten West appears to be this season, I would be disappointed if Minnesota isn’t even in the conversation for the division title come November. I’m not predicting a trip to Indianapolis, but contending, at the very least, seems like a reasonable ask.

Fleck has had staff turnover every year at Minnesota and this offseason was no different. Gone are defensive line coach Marcus West and defensive backs coach Jahmile Addae. West took a big promotion at Charlotte, and Addae couldn’t resist the call to return home to West Virginia. Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Robb Smith was also fired midseason last year due to his fundamental misunderstanding of how a defense is supposed to function. His interim replacement, Joe Rossi, earned the permanent title with an impressive four-game stint to end the season. Replacing West and Addae are defensive line coach Jim Panagos, cornerbacks coach Rod Chance, and safeties coach Joe Harasymiak.

Who are the main players returning and how could they help the team next season?

Blake: Pretty much everyone. Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan, who effectively split last season at quarterback, are both back after solid freshman seasons. Leading rusher Mohamed Ibrahim returns, backed by seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. If both Smith and Brooks are healthy (and stay healthy), that trio should terrify opposing defenses. They’ll be operating behind an offensive line that only loses two starters from a season ago, with 6’9”, 400-lb. sophomore tackle Daniel Faalele anchoring the unit, both figuratively and literally. All-Big Ten receiver Tyler Johnson leads a young and talented wide receiver corps that also includes sophomore Rashod Bateman, with the two of them representing a potentially lethal one-two punch.

Defensively, All-Big Ten rush end Carter Coughlin is back to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. If safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. can avoid a third consecutive season-ending injury against Maryland, he’ll be a shoo-in for All-Big Ten. He’ll lead a defensive backfield that returns a lot of experience at cornerback, specifically juniors Coney Durr and Kiondre Thomas. Senior linebacker Thomas Barber is a three-year starter, and he’ll be flanked by fellow upperclassman Kamal Martin, who has the athleticism to do a lot of different things on defense.

Who’s leaving, and has anyone stepped up to be potential replacements in the fall?

Blake: Three-year starter Donnell Greene leaves a big hole at left tackle. His replacement is TBD, but it appears that it will be either redshirt junior Sam Schlueter or JUCO transfer Jason Dickson. Schlueter makes a lot of people nervous, myself included, because it was his performance during the first half of last season that forced the staff to burn Faalele’s redshirt. I think he singlehandedly allowed three sacks in the first half against Iowa. So if he is back among the starting five, hopefully he has gotten better at pass protection.

The big loss on defense is linebacker Blake Cashman, but sophomore Thomas Rush is the heir apparent to his role. Both are athletic linebackers who can play sideline-to-sideline. The Gophers also lost their three top contributors at defensive tackle from last season, leaving a gaping hole up the middle. Notre Dame transfer Micah Dew-Treadway, JUCO transfer Keonte Schad, sophomore Jamaal Teague, and former walk-on Sam Renner represent the ragtag committee of defensive tackles who will be expected to figure it out.

Way-too-early breakout player of the year candidate based on spring reports?

Blake: With so much returning production, it will be tough for a fresh face to crack the rotation and stand out, but I like the potential of sophomore defensive end Boye Mafe. The Gophers desperately need someone not named Carter Coughlin to generate pressure on the quarterback and Mafe made the most of his audition in last year’s Quick Lane Bowl. He has all of the tools to succeed and he’ll have an opportunity this season to make a name for himself, and potentially lay claim to a starting role.

Way-too-early prediction not just for the game against Wisconsin itself, but for the 2019 season?

Blake: During the later years of the losing streak, I vowed never to predict a Minnesota win until the Gophers actually had the Axe in their grasp. Now that they’ve done it, I can’t predict a loss. Those are the rules, and I have to follow them. As for the rest of the 2019 season, I think they’ll end up somewhere around 8-4 or 9-3. The schedule presents its share of challenges, but there is not a single game on there that looks like a surefire loss to me. Conversely, that also means the season could go very badly if things don’t break the Gophers’ way and they drop more than a few of those toss-up games, but it’s July and I refuse to think like that. You can’t make me.