Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck’s first training camp at Minnesota starts in less than three weeks, on Aug. 1. The Gophers went 9-4 last year under Tracy Claeys, but it’s hard to pinpoint their potential this season under Fleck.
They have two terrific running backs, in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. They are loaded at linebacker and have Antoine Winfield Jr. back in the secondary. Defensive tackle Steven Richardson remains a major headache for opponents. They have a senior punter (Ryan Santoso) and the returning Big Ten Kicker of the Year (Emmit Carpenter). But there are questions up and down the roster.
With football fast approaching on the horizon, here are five players (actually six) who could swing the season, based on how they perform:
1. Conor Rhoda/Demry Croft
Fleck hasn’t named a starting quarterback, and this battle remains wide open heading into camp. Rhoda had the edge early in the spring, but Croft came on toward the end. By Aug. 1, they will each have had six-plus months of film study to digest Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense. Fleck wants a team leader at QB who can galvanize the entire offense. Rhoda and Croft both need to take care of the ball better than they did this spring. The pressure increases, so it should be fascinating to watch.
2. Brandon Lingen
The senior tight end from Wayzata has been a difference maker, when healthy. Mitch Leidner had far better quarterback production in 2015 when he had Lingen than last fall, when Lingen was on the shelf. Lingen came back from a shoulder injury only to suffer a season-ending foot injury. It sounds like Lingen has been doing well in summer workouts, but it remains to be seen how he’ll hold up to full contact.
3. Kiondre Thomas
Thomas wears No. 31, just as Eric Murray did before landing with the Kansas City Chiefs. A redshirt freshman from Arkansas, Thomas is built much like Murray at a wiry 6-foot, 180-pounds. Former Gophers assistant Jay Sawvel had high hope for Thomas when he recruited him.
Well, here’s an opportunity. The Gophers need to replace two starting cornerbacks. KiAnte Hardin got expelled, and Jalen Myrick is in the NFL (a seventh-round pick by the Jaguars). Thomas will be battling Antonio Shenault, Zo Craighton and Coney Durr for playing time. Durr is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the Holiday Bowl. Pass defense has been a major strength for the Gophers in recent years, so they’ll need some new talent to emerge.
4. Rashad Still
Still is one of Fleck’s most important projects. The Gophers had KJ Maye as their go-to receiver in 2015 and Drew Wolitarsky last season, but now there’s no receiver on the roster who caught more than 20 passes last season.
Still broke a clavicle in the season opener, missed three games and finished with 18 catches for 349 yards. A junior from El Paso, Texas, Still has an eclectic personality, to be sure. Fleck and new wide receivers coach Matt Simon had success developing wide receivers at Western Michigan (namely Corey Davis), so it’ll be interesting to see how much Still improves.
5. Winston DeLattiboudere
Hank Ekpe graduated, and Gaelin Elmore transferred to East Carolina, so the Gophers also need to replace both of their starting defensive ends. Carter Coughlin (6-4, 220 pounds) and Tai’yon Devers (6-4, 215) will line up on the edge, specializing in the pass rush, but teams could exploit their smaller size on running plays. The 6-3, 240-pound DeLattiboudere is a high-energy player built like more of a traditional Big Ten defensive end. The redshirt sophomore from Baltimore played in all 13 games last season and made 15 tackles, including 3½ tackles for a loss. He’ll get consistent playing time, and defensive coordinator Robb Smith will look for him to take advantage.