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Reviewing the 2018 Minnesota Golden Gophers

Who’s winning the Broken Chair Trophy?

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden Gophers find themselves with a 3-3 record at the midpoint of their season. A 3-0 start to the season against non-conference opponents (New Mexico State, Fresno State and Miami-Ohio) hMas been followed by three losses in Big Ten play. Maryland crushed Minnesota 42-13, but the Gophers were competitive in losses to Iowa (48-31) and Ohio State (30-14).

True freshman Zach Annexstad has started every game, completing 52% of his passes with eight touchdowns and averaging 180 yards passing a game. He’s thrown seven interceptions, all in the three games against Big Ten competition. Annexstad isn’t a threat to run, losing an average of 14 yards eac game from sacks. In Minnesota’s offense, the ground game is primarily powered by their running backs, though tight end Seth Green has now moved back to quarterback as a Wildcat option. Green has rushed 33 times for 113 yards, but more importantly five touchdowns this season.

Running back Rodney Smith tore his ACL early against Fresno State after starting the season with a 153 yard effort against New Mexico State. Freshman Bryce Williams replaced Smith the next two games, rushing for 318 yards and averaging just under 4 yards per carry. Redshirt freshman Mohammed Ibrahim missed the last two non-conference games with a leg injury, but has taken the starting job since returning. He’s rushed for 422 yards this season, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. In the passing game, Annexstad’s primary target is Tyler Johnson, who’s caught 36 passes for 521 yards and six touchdowns; he’s topped 100 yards receiving in four of the Gophers’ six games. True freshman Rashod Bateman (6’2” 200 lbs.) has caught 29 passes for 280 yards and three touchdowns.

Defensively, while the Gophers rank ninth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (24.5 points per game), they rank fifth in total defense (354.2 yards per game). The Gophers rank fourth in rush defense (121.5 yards per game) but ninth in pass defense (232.7 yards per game). The Gophers are the second-least penalized in the Big Ten, with 24 penalties for 259 yards. (We all know who the most penalized team is.) Interesting to note that Minnesota and Nebraska are both near the bottom in terms of turnover margin; the Gophers are -6 on the season while the Huskers are -7.

The Gophers are led on defense by linebackers Blake Cashman and Thomas Barber with 47 and 42 tackles respectively; safety Jacob Huff has 40. Defensive end Carter Coughlin leads the Big Ten with seven sacks so far in 2018.

Impacts from freshmen like Mohammed Ibrahim and Rashod Bateman have complemented Zach Annexstad on offense to make the Gophers better than expected on that side of the ball. But the secondary has been an issue the last few weeks, and that’s an opportunity for the Huskers to exploit this week. The folks up north at the Daily Gopher are pretty confident that Nebraska is “not a good football team.” Overconfident perhaps? Maybe they should talk to the Northwestern players who couldn’t believe the Huskers are 0-6 at this point.

After the jump, check out the preseason preview of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

P.J. Fleck only won three of his first 17 games at Eastern Michigan; he might have started his Minnesota tenure in similar fashion if not for one factor: Mike Riley. The Gophers two most impressive games (by far) were a 48-14 victory over Oregon State and a 54-21 victory over the Huskers. The Gophers only defeated one other Power Five opponent (24-17 over Illinois) last season. Adding extra ignominy over that 54 point explosion against the Blackshirts is the fact that those were the last points Minnesota scored in 2017. Northwestern and Wisconsin combined to blast the Gophers 70-0 to close out the season; not since 1950 had the Gophers been shut out in back-to-back games.

Demry Croft, the hero of the Gophers’ blowout victory over Nebraska, was no longer willing to keep rowing the boat after the season, bailing out to 1-AA Tennessee State at Christmas time. So like Nebraska, Minnesota is going to turn to a freshman quarterback this season. Redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan (6’2” 205 lbs.) emerged from the spring on top of the depth chart, with true freshman wak-on Zack Annexstad (6’3” 215 lbs.), who enrolled last January, second. The two beat out junior college transfer Vic Viramontes for the top two spots, sending Viramontes back to junior college to give linebacker a try.

The best friends that a new, inexperienced quarterback could have are a good running back and a deep offensive line. Morgan or Annexstad should have both this season. Senior running back Rodney Smith (5’11” 210 lbs.) rushed for 977 yards and three touchdowns last season; for his career, Smith has 2,805 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns. His tag-team backup parter, senior Shannon Brooks (6’0” 215 lbs.) was originally thought to be sidelined for the entire season due to a leg injury, but the new redshirt rule might allow him to play, if he’s sufficiently healed late in the season. He’s rushed for 1,728 yards and 17 touchdowns in his Gopher career. While the Gophers wait for Brooks to heal, redshirt freshman Mohammed Ibrahim (5’10” 205 lbs.) looks to be the front-runner of a pack of freshman to back up Smith; Ibrahim was the scout team player of the year last season.

And that line? Four starters return, led by senior left tackle Donnell Green (6’7” 320 lbs.), an honorable mention all-Big Ten honoree last season. Sophomores Connor Olson (6’5” 297 lbs.) and Sam Schlueter(6’6” 298 lbs.) were pressed into service as freshmen at guard and tackle, respectively. Offensive line recruiting was the top priority for Minnesota this last signing period, with a couple of huge four stars in Curtis Dunlap Jr. (6’5” 370 lbs.) and Daniel Faalele (6’9” 400 lbs.; yes, I wrote 400) enrolling this spring. Barring injuries, this line should improve as the season goes on; again, the new redshirt rule should allow these true freshman to see action at some point this season.

Minnesota wasn’t very good in the passing game last season, and it wasn’t all the quarterback’s problem either. Aside from junior wide receiver Tyler Johnson (6’2” 190 lbs.), the Gophers didn’t have many reliable options last season. Johnson led the team with 35 catches for 677 yards and seven of the Gophers nine receiving touchdowns last season. And after Johnson broke his hand against the Huskers, the Gophers passing game went from bad to inept. Against Northwestern the next week, the remaining receivers only caught three passes while dropping six more. Freshman Demetrius Douglas (6’0” 181 lbs.) might be an answer this season; he caught 11 of the 15 passes thrown his way in his three games in an injury-shortened season that counts as a medical redshirt. Sophomore Phillip Howard caught 11 passes for 132 yards. There probably won’t be much help from the tight end position this year either; as sophomore Ko Kieft (6’4” 250 lbs.) has to replace their top two tight ends. Depth there is so questionable that sophomore Seth Green (6’4” 229 lbs.) switched from quarterback to build depth at tight end this spring. (With Viramontes departure, you’d have to expect Green to continue to take snaps as the #3 quarterback.) Aside from Johnson and maybe Douglas, it’s tough to see much to build on at this point for the Gophers.

The Gophers looked like they could be pretty good on defense during their non-conference schedule...but then things broke down in a B1G way. Five out of nine conference opponents rushed for over 240 yards last season. The last four Gopher opponents rushed for 371, 69, 277 and 287 yards; guess who was so nice last November? Only one starter, junior Carter Coughlin (6’4” 245 lbs), returns on the defensive line; Carter’s 6.5 sacks and 11.5 total tackles for a loss led Minnesota last season.

Minnesota’s secondary was a M*A*S*H unit last season as only senior Jacob Huff (5’11” 207 lbs.) started all twelve games last year. Huff was third on the team with 65 tackles and led the Gophers with three interceptions. Fleck and defensive coordinator Robb Smith prefer using a nickel alignment as a base formation, and until injuries sapped the depth in the secondary, senior Jacob Huff (5’11” 207 lbs.) filled that role. After four games last season, Huff moved to safety to replace Antoine Winfield. Now with Winfield back, it’s unclear whether Huff will remain at safety or shift back to nickel. As a true freshman in 2016, Winfield started eight games with 52 tackles. Senior cornerback Antonio Shenault (5’11” 192 lbs.) returns after totaling 64 tackles last season, and will be matched up with either sophomore Kiondre Thomas(6’0 188 lbs.), who had 21 tackles in six starts last season, or Florida transfer Chris Williamson (5’11” 191 lbs.). I have to expect that those are the five starters, though it probably remains to be seen who will line up where exactly. No matter what, barring more injuries, the Gophers should be better in the secondary in 2018.

Minnesota’s linebackers are the strength of the Gopher defense, with junior middle linebacker Thomas Barber (6’1” 233 lbs.) coming off of a third-team all-Big Ten season with 115 tackles, 10.5 for a loss. Junior weakside linebacker Kamal Martin(6’3” 229 lbs.) added 42 tackles. If the Gophers decide to stick with a more traditional linebacker setup, seniors Blake Cashman (6’2” 235 lbs.) and Julian Huff (6’0” 225 lbs.) return after backup seasons last season. As a sophomore, Cashman earned Big Ten defensive player of the week honors in a ten tackle, two sack performance against Northwestern and Holiday Bowl defensive Most Valuable Player honors for 12 tackles (three for a loss) against Washington State.

With questions at quarterback, wide receiver and defensive line, it looks like expectations for Minnesota football in 2018 should be tempered. Will that be enough to retain the in Minneapolis? That’s a good question; I suspect that while Nebraska has their own questions, my money would be on the two four-star Nebraska quarterbacks having more success than Minnesota’s three star and walk-on. Well, that and the fact that Bob Diaco has now moved 425 miles south of Lincoln.