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Three big questions for U football now that spring practice is done



We learned what the Gophers gained from spring football. Now it's time to explore the unanswered questions for the 2019 season. Here's the final installment of my spring football blog series:

How will injury returns impact this team?
I feel like this is a question every season. But there are a lot of question marks around the Gophers, the biggest ones being Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks (plus Antoine Winfield, Jr., on defense, but he was 100% healthy this spring). The redshirt seniors are proven solid running backs who should be full-go after knee surgeries in time for training camp. But how will they look after recovery? And how will their returns impact breakout star Mohamed Ibrahim? Some other injured players that have been quiet this spring: wildcat quarterback Seth Green, running back Nolan Edmonds, running back Treyson Potts, running back Jason Williamson, wide receiver Jornell Brooks, defensive back Bishop McDonald, defensive lineman Alex Reigelsperger, defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere, defensive lineman Malcolm Robinson, offensive lineman Kyle Sassack and punter Alex Melvin.

Who will be the starting quarterback?
I can tell you one thing: It’s almost certainly ... either Zack Annexstad or Tanner Morgan. Annexstad won this battle in training camp ahead of 2018, but Morgan took over the starting job halfway through the season when Annexstad came down with an injury. Coach P.J. Fleck has been coy about his decision-making process. It seems to me like Annexstad might have the edge when it comes to big throws. But Morgan saw this team to some of its best results in some years at the end of last season. So who’s to say?

Can the offensive line live up to its potential?
Fleck has been quietly optimistic about his offensive line, which was freshman-heavy last season. It’s still young but returning some experience. And Fleck said with O-lines being “the name of the game” in the Big Ten conference, his could be one of the better ones. But that was a little hard to see in the spring game, since he mixed up all the strings. For example, from LT to RT:

Jason Dickson, Blaise Andries, John Michael Schmitz, Nathan Boe, Daniel Faalele
Sam Schlueter, Austin Beier, Conner Olson, Curtis Dunlap Jr., JJ Guedet

These lines (with some variations) allowed seven sacks in the spring game. Which is non-ideal. But who knows how much better the unit will look with all the ones playing together?

What did the Gophers learn from spring football?



Who doesn't love a spring ball wrap-up blog? And if that isn't great enough, there will be TWO, with one tomorrow discussing the unanswered questions surrounding Gophers football heading into summer. But for now, enjoy some takes on what the Gophers have going for them in 2019. And catch up on all my spring game coverage here, here and here.

The wide receivers are the strongest group by far.
The Gophers’ receiving corps is going to make this team look very good and likely win some games. Senior Tyler Johnson leads the way, a proven standout. But Rashod Bateman had an MVP-worthy spring game, and coach P.J. Fleck said the sophomore gained 12 pounds of muscle this offseason. Chris Autman-Bell has put together maybe the best spring of all the wideouts, according to Fleck. And Demetrius Douglas has impressed playing every receiver position and transitioning with ease. There’s a lot of depth in this group, and it will be exciting to watch.

The pass-rush will take a step forward.
The defense certainly wasn’t the Gophers’ strongest suit last year. And while they pulled it together toward the end of the season, 2019 might see some significant improvements. Senior Carter Coughlin was the team’s best pass-rusher last year, and he might be in for some big help from redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Boye Mafe. Fleck said with those two – plus other linemen like senior Tai’yon Devers, redshirt sophomore Esezi Otomewo, graduate student Micah Dew-Treadway, redshirt senior Winston DeLattiboudere and redshirt senior Sam Renner – he can be creative with his personnel packages, moving players around to have, for example, Mafe and Coughlin on the field together.

Thomas Rush might have some <eyes emoji> on him.
The sophomore linebacker really impressed Fleck with his 71-yard interception return for a touchdown in the spring game. He turned on his high school running back skills for that play. But Fleck said he’s liking how Rush is settling in to his defensive role now, which was hard last year for Rush to learn the instincts, techniques and tackling skills that weren’t natural to him as mainly an offensive player growing up. Fleck said Rush was “tremendous” in the game and opened his eyes to some things. So this player might be looking at some heavier rotation at strongside linebacker and maybe even a breakout season.