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Previewing the 2016 Minnesota Golden Gophers

NCAA Football: Purdue at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota comes to Lincoln sharing a three-way tie for the Big Ten’s west division with Nebraska and Wisconsin, and controlling their own destiny. Their most impressive performance might arguably be a 29-26 loss at Penn State at the start of October. Certainly, doubts about the Gophers could come from a seven point victories over Oregon State and Colorado State and a two point victory over Rutgers. Run the table against Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin, and the Gophers head to Indianapolis at 10-2. Lose out, and the 7-5 Gophers wonder just what might have been this season.

Quarterback Mitch Leidner hasn’t exactly lived up to Todd McShay’s hype; he’s completed 58% of his passes for 1,505 yards and five touchdowns with six interceptions; that’s good for ninth in the Big Ten. He’s also rushed for 251 yards and seven touchdowns. Leidner’s favorite target is senior Drew Wolitarsky, who’s caught 45 passes for 579 yards and three touchdowns; that’s more than a third of the Gophers catches and passing yards. Injuries to tight end Brandon Lingen ended his season after just three games; Nate Wozniak, his replacement, has caught 10 passes for 106 yards.

The Gophers clearly count on their ground game, with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks leading the way. Smith averages 106 yards a game and has scored 13 touchdown. Brooks averages nearly 79 yards a game with five touchdowns this season. Brooks missed last week’s game with an unspecified injury, but head coach Tracy Claeys hopes he’ll be ready to play in Lincoln. (Though if he wasn’t, Claeys probably wouldn’t tell us beforehand anyway.)

Minnesota’s defense ranks seventh in the Big Ten in scoring defense (23.1 points per game) and fourth in total defense (350.7 yards per game). The Gophers are stingier against the run (3rd in the Big Ten, 118 yards per game) than the pass (13th in the Big Ten, 233 yards per game). Junior linebacker Jonathan Celestin leads the Gophers with 64 tackles this season. But the Minnesota linebacking corps will be playing extremely shorthanded this week, as middle linebacker Cody Poock suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last week against Purdue. His backup, Nick Rallis will miss the first half of the Nebraska game as a consequence of a targeting penalty in the final minute of the Purdue game. So freshman third-stringer Thomas Barber looks to get the start instead. Safety Damarius Thomas is second on the team in tackles with 60, and is tied for the team lead in interceptions with two along with cornerback KiAnte Hardin, who’s missed four games this season due to legal issues regarding a sexual assault allegation. That situation appears to be cleared up from a legal perspective.

Much of the improvement on the Gophers’ defense stems from getting defensive tackles Steven Richardson, Scott Epke and Hendrick Epke. The trio have combed for 9.5 sacks this season, which could be a concern if Nebraska tries to throw more if Tommy Armstrong isn’t cleared to play.

Minnesota might not be the ideal team for the Huskers to "bounce back" from, as the Gophers might be ready to capitalize on another Huskers slow start. That 13th ranked pass defense might be awfully tempting to Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf, though that would not seem to match up well with Nebraska’s strengths. Both teams are still playing for a lot in this game: a chance still to win the Big Ten west, a ten win season and most important of all, the Broken Chair Trophy.

Below, you’ll find the rest of the preseason preview of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Ever since 1999 at Emporia State, Jerry Kill, Tracy Claeys and Matt Limegrover have been joined at the hip as head coach, defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator. The three moved together to Southern Illinois in 2001, Northern Illinois in 2008 and finally, Minnesota in 2011. But with Jerry Kill's retirement from coaching last October, this trio is no more. Claeys was quickly promoted to replace Kill as head coach in November, and then after Thanksgiving, Claeys fired Limegrover. To replace Limegrover, Claeys chose Louisiana-Lafayette's Jay Johnson.

Johnson's philosophy seems to be similar to Limegrover's: run the ball primarily, and work in some short passes, but with some different wrinkles: more zone read and utilize an up-tempo, no-huddle approach. That would seem to be a good match with the skills senior quarterbackMitch Leidner (6'4" 237 lbs.) brings. In fact, Leidner and Johnson both hail from Lakeville, MN, where both were both coached in high school by Johnson's father Dick.

Leidner, who took over as Minnesota's starting quarterback in 2013, completed 59.5% of his passes last season for 2,701 yards and 14 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. Leidner added 270 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Despite having a career 56% completion percentage, ESPN's Todd McShay slotted him at #25 in his first 2017 NFL Mock Draft. Now, almost nobody in Minnesota believes that Leidner is a potential first round draft pick; mind you; Minnesota hasn't had a quarterback drafted since 1972. But the Gophers would love to see Leidner live up to McShay's projection, though they aren't going to put any money on it. If Leidner gets hurt, the Gophers will likely turn to sophomore Demry Croft (6'5" 200 lbs.), who completed just 7 of 17 passes last season, or true freshman Seth Green (6'4" 225 lbs.)

Last year, first Rodney Smith (5'11" 200 lbs.) and then Shannon Brooks (6'0" 206 lbs.) jumped into the starting lineup at running back as freshmen. Smith started seven games, rushing for 670 yards and two touchdowns, but then got banged up against Ohio State to open the door for Brooks, who rushed for 709 yards and seven touchdowns. Brooks looked to have the edge going into the season until he injured his foot at the start of preseason practice. Smith may get the nod early in the season, but the plan is to not only play both, play both on the field at the same time. (Think of how Wisconsin used Melvin Gordon along with Montee Ball, if your stomach can handle that flashback.) Brooks is definitely the more consistent of the two; he averaged 6.0 yards per carry last season vs. 4.3 for Smith. Junior college transfer Kobe McCrary (6'1" 230 lbs.) has impressed in Brooks' absence in August and could make a case for playing time, especially in short yardage situations that could benefit from a big back.

Minnesota loses their top receiver from last season, but return eight of their top nine from last season. Senior Drew Wolitarsky (6'3" 218 lbs.) caught 39 passes for 524 yards and three touchdowns last season. Junior tight end Brandon Lingen (6'5" 247 lbs.) caught 33 passes for 428 yards and three touchdowns; I suspect he'll end up better than Maxx Williams, the former Gopher now with the Baltimore Ravens. Fellow junior tight end Nate Wozniak has grown to 6'10" and 271 lbs., but he hasn't been much of a threat in the passing game: only eight catches for 75 yards last season. Junior Eric Carter only played in eight games last season but caught 23 passes for 255 yards. A player to keep an eye on is sophomore Rashad Still (6'5" 202 lbs.) who caught 18 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns.

Injuries were a problem on the Gophers' offensive line last season, and this season, they have to replace seven departed seniors with starting experience. Senior right tackle Jonah Pirsig (6'9" 316 lbs.) might have been the only guy to stay healthy all season long last season, starting all 13 games. Sophomore center Tyler Moore (6'4" 306 lbs.) started the final eight games last season, while junior Connor Mayes (6'5" 328 lbs.) started nine games. Two junior college transfers, juniors Vincent Calhoun (6'4" 335 lbs.) and Garrison Wright (6'4" 318 lbs.) will be key parts of this year's Gopher line.

Defensively, the Gophers were mostly in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten: 9th in scoring defense, 7th in total defense, 10th in rush defense and 4th in pass defense. SB Nation's Bill Connelly pointed out that last season, Minnesota epitomized the "bend but don't break" philosophy. The Gophers only allowed 16 plays to gain 30 yards or more last season, ranking sixth in the nation. Claeys promoted defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel up to defensive coordinator, with Dan O'Brien moving from an administrative role in the program to be the defensive backs coach. So don't expect much of a change in philosophy on defense with Minnesota.

Minnesota's issues in stopping the run last season could be blamed in large part on injuries up front. Junior defensive tackle Steven Richardson (6'0" 291 lbs.) missed four games while senior defensive tackle Scott Ekpe (6'4" 290 lbs.) missed seven games. Junior Andrew Stelter (6'4" 295 lbs.) replaced Ekpe and might keep the job when the season opens. Ekpe's brother Hendrick (6'5" 243 lbs.) started 11 games but only totaled 11 tackles. If this line can stay together on the field and not in the training room, Minnesota's rush defense should improve.

Two starters return at linebacker, but the Gophers will definitely miss De'Vondre Campbell, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the 4th round. Junior middle linebacker Cody Poock (6'2" 230 lbs.) is Minnesota's leading returning tackler with 99 last season. As a sophomore, the media named him to the honorable mention all-Big Ten team. Senior outside linebacker Jack Lynn (6'3" 238 lbs.) led the Gophers last season with 11.5 tackles for loss and was fourth in total tackles with 76. There's a certain amount of uncertainty around the Gophers' linebacking corps as linebackers coach Mike Sherels has been hospitalized since August 9 for undisclosed reasons. Keith Jordan has been named acting linebackers coach in the meantime; the Pioneer Press suggests that Sherels isn't expected to return to the team this season.

With the need to replace three of four starters in the secondary, Minnesota's pass defense goes from being a strength to a bit of a question mark. Only senior safety Adekunle Ayinde (6'0" 203 lbs.) returns as a starter; he broke up five passes and added 43 tackles last season. Senior Damarius Travis (6'2" 208 lbs.) returns after being granted a medical hardship for last season; in 2014, he started half the season with 61 tackles and seven passes defended. Senior Jalen Myrick (5'10" 205 lbs.) mostly played as a backup, yet still ranked second on the team with three interceptions. He might be the fastest guy on the Minnesota roster, so look out if he gets ahold of a ball.

Injuries up front were a key reason why the Gophers lost seven games last season; it doesn't take much of a stretch to think that the Gophers will be better in 2016. A friendlier schedule that replaces Ohio State and Michigan as crossover games with Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers could make the Gophers a darkhorse candidate to challenge in the Big Ten's West division this season. But to do that, the Gophers will need to reclaim the Broken Chair trophy from Mike Riley and the Huskers.