Tracy Claeys’ uncertain future as head coach is by far the biggest question the Gophers football program faces for 2017.
But the roster poses other major questions, too, including: Who’s going to play quarterback?
Mitch Leidner finished his career 24-17 as a starter after Tuesday’s 17-12 victory over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
The 2017 job was expected to be a three-way battle between Demry Croft, Seth Green and Mark Williams — three players who redshirted this season.
But Green and Williams are two of 10 players who were suspended from the team indefinitely earlier this month in connection with an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault.
Though neither player was accused of having sexual contact with the alleged victim, their alleged involvement led the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action to recommend one-year suspensions from the school. All 10 suspended players are scheduled for appeals hearings in January and could have the suspensions lifted or reduced.
In addition, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman is expected to announce Friday whether his office will take on the case with a new investigation, based on his ongoing review of both the U’s investigation and the Minneapolis police investigation that led to no arrests or charges.
If Green and Williams remain suspended, Croft will head into spring practice as the leading candidate to start at quarterback. The 6-5, 200-pound Croft has a quick release and nimble feet. He was Leidner’s backup last year, as a true freshman, but Conor Rhoda passed him on the depth chart this year.
Rhoda is a fourth-year junior who led the Gophers over Maryland on Oct. 15, when Leidner was recovering from a concussion. Claeys wants more mobility at the position, though, and Rhoda is more of a pocket passer. The Gophers have given Rhoda permission to talk to other schools about competing next year as a graduate transfer.
Meanwhile, they’ve targeted multiple quarterbacks for their 2017 recruiting class and recently signed junior college transfer Neil McLaurin. The 6-3, 200-pound McLaurin stood out as a dual-threat quarterback this fall at Southwest Mississippi Community College. He plans to enroll at Minnesota in January, so he can go through spring practice.
The Gophers are expected to add at least one more quarterback before national signing day Feb. 1, and they also seem like a prime landing spot for a graduate transfer.
They scored 29.3 points per game this year, up from 22.5 last year, despite starting only three seniors on offense — Leidner, tackle Jonah Pirsig and receiver Drew Wolitarsky. The running game should continue to shine, with current sophomores Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks returning behind a more experienced offensive line.
Beyond quarterback, their biggest roster questions come on defense, where they need to replace six senior starters: linemen Scott Ekpe and Hank Ekpe, linebackers Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis, and defensive backs Jalen Myrick and Damarius Travis.
The EOAA recommended expulsion for cornerbacks KiAnte Hardin and Ray Buford, a one-year suspension for starting safety Antoine Winfield Jr., and probation for reserve cornerback Antonio Shenault.
Winfield appears almost certain to transfer. When asked if his son would consider returning, Antoine Winfield Sr. said, “If the president [Eric Kaler] and athletic director [Mark Coyle] keep their jobs, my son, Antoine Winfield Jr., will not attend the University of Minnesota.”
So the Gophers will be rebuilding in the secondary, with current freshmen Coney Durr and Kiondre Thomas likely playing big minutes at cornerback and leading safety roles going to Adekunle Ayinde, Duke McGhee and Jacob Huff.
The gaping secondary holes overshadow the impressive young talent the Gophers have assembled at linebacker. Jonathan Celestin and Cody Poock will be back as a seniors, joined by current underclassmen Blake Cashman, Julian Huff, Jaylen Waters, Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber.
There’s still talent on defense. Claeys and defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel just showed Washington State what they can do, even with a depleted defensive roster.
But for now, Coyle hasn’t said whether the coaches will be back, leaving much of the team’s 2017 picture unclear.
Joe Christensen covers Gophers football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @JoeCStrib firstname.lastname@example.org