The Gophers are one week from their season opener against TCU, and we’re ramping up our coverage at StarTribune.com. This week, as an added feature, Chip Scoggins and I are unveiling a series of Top Five lists, looking at the Gophers and the national college landscape.
Check out Chip’s latest entries here. I’ve done “Five keys to the Gophers’ season,” “The Gophers’ five most indispensable players,” "The Gophers' five most unsung players," and now, here are five (actually eight) of their potential breakout stars:
1. DE Hank Ekpe
The Gophers need a better pass rush this year. Senior DE Theiren Cockran will do his part, but the biggest boost could come from having Ekpe healthy on the other side of the D-line. Ekpe was limited with a severe sinus infection last fall, but he's been healthy since spring practice and has been piling up sacks in practice.
2. RBs Rodney Smith/Shannon Brooks
Both of these two youngsters from Georgia could become go-to guys this year, with the Gophers looking to replace David Cobb (Tennessee Titans). Senior tailback Rodrick Williams will get the start Thursday against TCU, but Smith will definitely see action, and so could Brooks, as a true freshman.
3. LBs Everett Williams/Cody Poock
These two are battling for the starting middle linebacker job, as the Gophers need to replace Damien Wilson (Dallas Cowboys), who led the team last year with 119 tackles. Wilson was a force, but he had a tendency to drift out of position. The coaching staff actually thinks steady play from Williams and Poock could help make the defense even better.
4. WR Jeff Jones
Anyone who watched spring practice probably would have put Jones atop this list. After moving from running back to slot receiver, he quickly emerged as a go-to target. Beside his speed and shiftiness, he has excellent hands. He had a slow start to training camp and suffered a concussion, but he's back practicing now and remains a definite breakout possibility.
5. WRs Melvin Holland Jr./Rashad Still
Maybe it's a cop-out to list multiple players at these positions, but I don't even think the team knows which young outside receiver will emerge first. With Isaiah Gentry out with a hamstring injury, and Desmond Gant a work in progress, Holland is the furthest along of those heralded redshirt freshmen. Still has been the most talked about of the true freshmen receivers, though Hunter Register looked excellent at times, too. There's plenty of impressive looking talent at receiver, but time will tell which ones pan out.