Much like everything in 2020, roster planning even for the near future is a bit nebulous.
After the Gophers football team's 3-4 season, in which it missed two games during a COVID-19 outbreak and struggled with depth, the program needs all the help it can muster. And, in a 2020 rarity, it has some help from the football gods.
The NCAA passed two key pandemic-related rules earlier this year that will make this offseason very intriguing. First, every player earned an extra year of eligibility to make up for shortened, delayed or even canceled seasons. That means all 17 Gophers who should have exhausted their eligibility this season have a do-over in 2021. Second, a one-time transfer rule is in place, allowing for immediate eligibility for any first-time transfers instead of having to sit out a season.
Breaking down the 2021 roster possibilities involves working with a lot of unknowns. Only a handful of seniors have already stated their intention to return. The team will bring in 17 freshmen and has signed one graduate transfer, but coach P.J. Fleck is interested in seeking more immediate help from the NCAA transfer portal this offseason.
That influx likely will mean an overflow of scholarship players, which could cause some players to transfer to other schools. And of course, every other college football team will have the same benefits. Now it's just a matter of who capitalizes on them the best.
So far, the only players to announce their departures have been receiver Rashod Bateman, who did so before the final two games of the season, and cornerback Benjamin St-Juste. While both prepare for the 2021 NFL draft, it appears most everyone else will return.
Officially, cornerbacks Coney Durr and Phil Howard as well as receiver Clay Geary have said they will return for sixth years in 2021. The 14 other seniors have until about mid-January, when the team reconvenes for winter workouts, to decide.
Howard likely will take St-Juste's starting role alongside Durr, while Geary will move up in the receiver rotation, as he did with more targets later in 2020. But should everyone else stay, it will make for some interesting lineup decisions.
For example, the offensive line played without 2019 starters right guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. (injury) and right tackle Daniel Faalele (COVID-19 concerns) the entire season. The reshuffled line of Sam Schlueter at left tackle, Axel Ruschmeyer at left guard, John Michael Schmitz at center, Conner Olson at right guard and Blaise Andries at right tackle was strong, even when Nathan Boe and Aireontae Ersery rotated into the unit. But Faalele and Dunlap's return could knock Schmitz, an all-Big Ten honorable mention this year, and Ruschmeyer back to the bench.
Linebacker Braelen Oliver also sat out the entire season after a spring practice injury. He was supposed to be a full-time starter, and the linebacker group certainly cycled through various options opposite Mariano Sori-Marin. None seemed to stick.
Four four-star recruits will be on campus by summer in quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, cornerback Steven Ortiz Jr., running back Mar'Keise Irving and defensive end Deven Eastern. There could even be one more in cornerback Avante Dickerson, a commit who delayed his signing until February.
In 2019, only one freshman burned his redshirt in safety Tyler Nubin; the others played four or fewer games to preserve their eligibility. With every player earning an extra year of eligibility, these 17 incoming freshmen will have even more competition for breaking through, especially on defense, where the team really doesn't need more inexperience.
But if 2021 is anything like this past year, the Gophers will need their depth, as evidenced with true freshman Daniel Jackson starting the whole season at receiver and true freshman Cody Lindenberg starting the first couple of games at linebacker.
In the transfer category, only FCS graduate transfer Jack Gibbens has joined so far. The Abilene Christian linebacker played four years before using his do-over year to jump up a level. The linebacker group doesn't have any seniors, and defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has said any kind of veteran presence would help the group grow from its 2020 angsts.
With at least four more scholarships left in the 2021 limit of 25, there's room for the Gophers to add transfers in the coming months. Or the team could decide to use more scholarships on seniors returning for another year in the program. Schools are allowed to individually decide if they want to exceed the 85-scholarship limit and by how much.
When looking at the Gophers' 2021 schedule, it's clear why the team needs every player in its collection. The tough schedule opens against Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State, which could be the defending national champion when the teams meet in early September. The Gophers also will face two reigning conference coach of the year winners in Indiana's Tom Allen and Colorado's Karl Dorrell.
That's all in addition to the squad's usual West foes, including 2020 division champion Northwestern, rivals Iowa and Wisconsin, even a Bret Bielema-led Illinois.
And the Gophers thought 2020 was hard.