The Gophers are nine days 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.
Chip has ranked the top national championship contenders, along with the top venues in college football. I wrote "Five keys to the Gophers season," and here's a stab at ranking the team's five most indispensable players.
1. Mitch Leidner
Heading into Jerry Kill’s fifth season, the Gophers have enough depth to survive most injuries, but losing Leidner would dramatically change things. Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy, but he’s an experienced starter now who was instrumental in all five Big Ten victories last year. Chris Streveler was the No. 2 QB last year, but now the Gophers are giving him a try at tight end, H-back and inside receiver. If Leidner went down, the next QBs in line could be redshirt freshman Jacques Perra or true freshman Demry Croft. Perra is a good passer, and Croft looks like he could be the total package for this offense, eventually. But either one of them would be rushed, at this point.
2. Eric Murray
It’s hard to pick just one of the team's standout cornerbacks and bypassing first-team All-Big Ten selection Briean Boddy-Calhoun. BBC is an extraordinary playmaker, but the Gophers base entire portions of their defensive game plan around Murray’s ability to basically erase one receiver from the opposing offense. Murray rarely needs help from the safeties, so they can focus on other parts of the field. Murray is a terrific tackler who can play the nickel when needed. He's also the team’s top NFL prospect.
3. Josh Campion
Again, tough picking just one offensive lineman, but I’m going with the guy who has started every game the past three seasons. He has started at both left and right tackle, and the Gophers would love to have both LT Ben Lauer and RT Jonah Pirsig healthy, so the 6-5, 310-pound Campion could slide over to right guard. Lauer needed knee surgery during training camp, so Campion was back at left tackle. That versatility is invaluable.
4. Damarius Travis
The secondary is the backbone of this team, and one reason the defense is tough against both one-back offenses (TCU, Ohio State, etc.) and two-back attacks (Iowa, Wisconsin) is Travis' versatility at safety. The 6-2, 208-pound Florida native is good in run support, he's good in coverage, he can play the nickel. I featured the senior secondary in Sunday's story. Here's more about what makes that unit so good.
5. KJ Maye
Leidner captains the offense, and Boddy-Calhoun captains the defense, but Maye is a big part of the entire team's heart and soul. He's the only senior wide receiver, and Leidner routinely praises him for the example he sets for the younger guys. The Gophers were creative in how they used him last year, too, as he got 16 receptions for 298 yards -- and 23 rushes for 144 yards. With Jeff Jones emerging as another dynamic option in the slot, Maye is capable of moving to outside receiver. He played QB in high school and RB as a freshman, so his versatility is off the charts. The Alabama native has become a secret weapon in recruiting, too.