Training camp will be different for the Gophers this year without Jerry Kill, but his fingerprints remain everywhere.
The former Minnesota coach, who’s now an associate athletic director at Kansas State, always kept meticulous notes in three-ring binders.
“Thank God he did because I’ve been able to pull those out and go through them and make sure of all the little things,” Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said Thursday, on the eve of the team’s first practice.
During the transition from Kill to Claeys, the Gophers finished 6-7 last year. Claeys said Minnesota has reached the point where it should at least be in contention for a Big Ten West title every November.
Asked if it feels like his program now, Claeys said: “I don’t know. I’ve never worried about that. Somebody can come in here and watch us practice [and say], ‘It’s the same as Jerry Kill,’ and that’s a hell of a compliment to me.”
As the Gophers go through preparations for their Sept. 1 opener against Oregon State, here are the five most important story lines:
New offensive boss
What impact will the offensive coordinator change have?
Lakeville native Jay Johnson inherited a unit that ranked 103rd nationally in total offense last year under former offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover.
At Louisiana-Lafayette, Johnson steered an offense that in 2012 set a school record for total offense with 5,914 yards, which ranked 29th nationally. But last year, with inexperience at quarterback and an injury-depleted offensive line, the Ragin’ Cajuns slipped to 77th before Johnson left for Minnesota.
He’ll run the read option, much as Limegrover did, but Claeys was sold on Johnson’s ability to keep defenses guessing by mixing the run and pass.
It that quest for balance, the Gophers are glad to have both a veteran QB (Mitch Leidner) and two proven running backs (Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith). The toughest task will be replacing KJ Maye, whose 73 receptions last year were the second most in team history.
Leidner healthy, hopeful
What’s Mitch Leidner’s ceiling at full health?
Leidner isn’t one to make excuses, but it was clear he could barely move late last season. With significant ligament damage in his left foot, he used a walking boot between games, and his weight ballooned to 250 pounds.
Two days after being named MVP of the bowl game, Leidner finally had surgery to fix a foot that had been bothering him, on and off, since the 2014 TCU game.
Now, Leidner feels like he’s got a new foot. He weighs 230 pounds and is the picture of confidence heading into his senior season. After ESPN’s Todd McShay projected Leidner as a potential first-round draft pick, it’ll be tough to match the hype. But Leidner hopes to put it all together and lead the team to a Big Ten title.
Upgrades on the offensive line
How much has the offensive line improved?
This was Claeys’ top offseason project. He hired Bart Miller away from Florida Atlantic to coach the offensive line, saying he wanted the Gophers to go back to being “road graders.”
Claeys signed two junior college transfers — left tackle Garrison Wright and right guard Vincent Calhoun — who could be difference-makers because of their size and strength.
At 6-9, 325 pounds, senior right tackle Jonah Pirsig continues to improve and could have an NFL future. Tyler Moore returns after starting eight games at center as a true freshman, and junior Connor Mayes made nine starts last year at left guard.
Depth remains a concern, but Claeys says there are about seven linemen ready to play at a high level this season.
Replacing Murray hard
How much will Eric Murray be missed?
The Gophers ranked 11th nationally in pass defense last year, despite losing Damarius Travis in the season opener, Briean Boddy-Calhoun playing through a knee injury and Jalen Myrick missing three games with a punctured lung.
Travis and Myrick return, and while Boddy-Calhoun is off to the NFL, the defensive back the Gophers will miss most is fellow cornerback Eric Murray. He not only shut down opposing receivers, he was extremely consistent and durable.
The Gophers will have a senior at one corner, Myrick, but the rest of their cornerbacks are either first- or second-year players. The Gophers have recruited well here, but the talent will have to grow up fast.
New faces could help D
Which newcomers will have an immediate impact?
Seth Green is a good bet to redshirt at quarterback, with Demry Croft holding down the backup spot there. But five incoming freshmen could emerge as key cogs on defense: linebackers Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin, and defensive backs Antoine Winfield Jr., Kiondre Thomas and Coney Durr.
Another JUCO transfer, Merrick Jackson, should help with the team’s run defense, as a 320-pound defensive tackle. Eric Amoako, a graduate transfer from Houston Baptist, gives the Gophers another veteran option at safety. He began his college career at Oregon.