The Gophers football team captured the state’s attention this fall. Now the challenge is keeping it.
More expectation will fall on the Gophers’ shoulders in 2020, as they return nine of 11 starters on offense, including quarterback Tanner Morgan. But graduation will sap the defense of six impact players, with sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr., the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year, a strong candidate to leave early for the NFL.
While coach P.J. Fleck’s team waits to learn its bowl destination Sunday, here’s a look ahead to the 2020 roster:
The defense must replace several key seniors, including two top linebackers. Kamal Martin ranked second on the team with 66 tackles, including two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Middle linebacker Thomas Barber was the general of the defense.
Three contributing defensive ends will be missed. Carter Coughlin was a second-team All-Big Ten selection for his team-high 9.5 tackles for loss. Winston DeLattiboudere was the defense’s great motivator who contributed 27 tackles. Tai’yon Devers was a big part of the Gophers’ third-down pass-rush package.
In the secondary, cornerback Chris Williamson stacked up 50 tackles and three pass-breakups. Then there’s Winfield, who tops the team in tackles (83) and interceptions (seven).
He still has two more years of eligibility remaining after back-to-back season-ending injuries, but he came in with the senior class and will graduate this spring.
The All-Big Ten first-team member said he was still gathering information before making his decision whether to turn pro.
Without Winfield, the Gophers would miss seven of their top 11 tacklers, including several other playmakers.
On offense, the Gophers will lose only three players, but their production will be difficult to replace:
• WR Tyler Johnson: He amassed 1,114 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
• RB Rodney Smith: He rushed for 1,094 yards and eight scores.
• RB Shannon Brooks: He added 408 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Start with this: The Gophers will return their entire offensive line and tight end corps, groups that made major strides in their development this year. That sets a foundation for everything else the offense does.
The Gophers lost former starting quarterback Zack Annexstad because of a foot injury during training camp, but Morgan emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best, setting single-season team records for passing yards (2,975) and passing touchdowns (28).
Annexstad could return next season to compete for the starting job.
Even without Johnson, the Gophers still have standout receiving targets coming back:
• Rashod Bateman: Still a sophomore, he most likley will head to the NFL eventually but has at least one more year to wait.
• Chris Autman-Bell: Caught the overtime-forcing touchdown at Fresno State, just keeping his foot inbounds.
• Demetrius Douglas: Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said Douglas could step into a big-time role at any moment.
At running back, even though the Gophers will lose Smith and Brooks, they return Mohamed Ibrahim, the No. 1 rusher a year ago.
Defense is more of an unknown. Defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway will have to lead the line with many new starters such as Boye Mafe, Esezi Otomewo and Keonte Schad, who all rotated in this season. Sophomore linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin played in every game this season and started a few in Martin’s absence. He and Braelen Oliver will likely taken Martin’s and Barber’s places.
Sophomore Jordan Howden returns at safety, while a solid rotation of cornerbacks such as Benjamin St-Juste, Coney Durr, Kiondre Thomas and Terell Smith all have eligibility remaining.
Fleck said on WCCO radio Sunday there are many players in the pipeline who are going to be “very special” and “impactful” players next year. The public just hasn’t really seen them yet.
For example, the Gophers hardly burned any redshirts this season, minus cornerback Tyler Nubin. But up-and-comers such as running backs Cam Wiley and Treyson Potts, quarterbacks Jacob Clark and Cole Kramer and linebackers Donald Willis and James Gordon IV all have four more years.
And new recruits will arrive as early as January. The Gophers have 24 commitments in their 2020 class, which can begin officially signing Dec. 18. The class currently ranks 32nd in the nation and eighth in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports.com. Two four-star recruits head the group: wide receiver Daniel Jackson out of Kansas and linebacker Itayvion Brown out of Missouri.