The Gophers are 10 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 rolling out a series of Top Five lists each day, looking at the Gophers and the national college landscape.
This morning, Chip rolled out his top five national championship contenders. And here’s my list of the five keys to the Gophers’ season:
1. Mitch Leidner’s improvement as a passer
This one’s no secret. Leidner can run and can definitely lead, but he completed just 51.5 percent of his passes last year and his biggest struggles against TCU, Ohio State and Wisconsin. He needs to be better through the air, especially against those three teams.
2. Building consistency on the offensive line
This is critical for any team, but the Gophers have several questions along their first-string offensive line. When healthy, LT Ben Lauer, LG Jon Christenson, C Brian Bobek, RG Josh Campion and RT Jonah Pirsig are big and imposing. But Lauer already needed minor knee surgery, prompting Campion to move back to left tackle with Connor Mayes inserted at right guard. Christenson, Bobek and Pirsig have battled injuries during their careers, too. So continuity will be a question.
3. Wide receiver development
The Gophers could line up with KJ Maye, Drew Wolitarsky and Eric Carter, and that group might be serviceable enough to win some games. But to take the next step as a program – to challenge the likes of TCU, Ohio State and Wisconsin – the Gophers need more dynamic playmakers at receiver. Jeff Jones could be a new threat in the slot. Melvin Holland Jr. appears the furthest along of the other redshirt freshmen receivers, though Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and true freshmen Rashad Still and Hunter Register could all be special with time. The sooner the better for this team.
4. Better pass rush
The Gophers have one of the top secondaries in the Big Ten, if not the country, and their linebackers should be solid. But they’ll need more pressure on the quarterback after ranking ninth in the Big Ten last year with 2.08 sacks per game. A healthy Hank Ekpe could make a big difference. Coach Jerry Kill said Ekpe and Theiren Cockran are two of the best defensive ends in the conference.
5. One or two running backs emerge
The Gophers think they’re running game will be fine even without David Cobb. They definitely have candidates to replace him, probably in this order: 1) senior Rodrick Williams, 2) redshirt freshman Rodney Smith, 3) true freshman Shannon Brooks, 4) sophomore Berkley Edwards. It’s hard to expect any of them to jump in immediately find a rhythm, but the pressure is on. The Gophers can’t have all four of them come out tentative and expect to survive the first two weeks against TCU and Colorado State.