A lot of familiar names are gone — Maxx Williams, Cedric Thompson, David Cobb — but new ones are sure to emerge. Here are five positions to watch for the next Gophers breakout performer:
1. Defensive end: 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 by a severe sinus infection last fall, but he has been healthy since spring practice and has been piling up sacks in practice.
2. Running back: Rodney Smith (below) and Shannon Brooks
Both of these two youngsters from Georgia could become go-to guys this year, with the Gophers looking to replace David Cobb (he was drafted by the Tennessee Titans). Senior tailback Rodrick Williams will get the start Thursday, but Smith will see action, and so could Brooks, as a true freshman.
3. Linebacker: Everett Williams and Cody Poock
These two battled for the starting middle linebacker job, with Poock now listed as the starter on the depth chart. 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 Poock and Williams could help make the defense even better.
4. Slot receiver: 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 and remains a breakout possibility.
5. Receiver: Melvin Holland Jr. and Rashad Still
The team is waiting to see which young outside receiver will emerge first. With Isaiah Gentry out because of a hamstring injury, and Desmond Gant a work in progress, Holland is the furthest along among the 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.