Moments after the Citrus Bowl, Briean Boddy-Calhoun got asked about next season, and you could almost see his mind flashing forward to the Gophers’ season opener against TCU.
On Thursday night, Sept. 3, at TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers will play host to a Horned Frogs team that returns Trevone Boykin and several other standouts from a team that humiliated Mississippi 42-3 in the Peach Bowl.
It likely will be the Gophers’ first time opening a season against a Top 5 team since No. 4 Ohio State visited Memorial Stadium in 1974. Coach Jerry Kill has less than eight months to prepare for his next matchup with his old friend, Gary Patterson.
And that’s just the start of what figures to be an intriguing 2015 schedule for the Gophers. They’ll be a different team, for sure, as they look to take another step in the rebuilding process in Kill’s fifth season.
They went 8-5 again this year, but their Big Ten record improved from 4-4 to 5-3. They landed their first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962 and drew at least 15,000 fans to Orlando for the Citrus Bowl. Of course, it ended with Minnesota’s seventh consecutive bowl loss, this one to Missouri.
Now, the Gophers must replace five starters on offense, including senior David Cobb and sophomore Maxx Williams, who surprised no one Friday when he announced he was leaving early for the NFL draft. They also have to replace the spine of their defense, up-the-middle stalwarts Cameron Botticelli, Damien Wilson and Cedric Thompson.
It won’t be easy, but as senior-to-be Boddy-Calhoun said, “We’re hungry already.”
On Saturday, Kill added: “We’ve got a chance to be a really, really good football team next year.”
Here are the biggest questions facing the Gophers heading into that TCU showdown under the lights.
How do they replace Cobb?
The Gophers ran the ball on 70.2 percent of their plays this year, as Cobb set school records for carries (314) and rushing yards (1,626), building his own NFL résumé. What now?
Enter Jeff Jones. The four-star running back from Minneapolis Washburn had to sit out this fall to shore up his grades before becoming eligible for spring practice.
He becomes an immediate candidate to help fill Cobb’s void, along with another running back who redshirted this year, Rodney Smith, and incoming freshman Jonathan Femi-Cole. Rodrick Williams kept himself on the radar with a 19-yard touchdown run at Nebraska, and a 20-yard TD in the Citrus Bowl. The speedy Berkley Edwards will be in the mix, too.
Look for more of a committee approach without Cobb, but the coaches fully expect to continue thriving in the running game.
Highlight maker moves on
How do they replace Maxx?
Talents like Williams don’t come around often. In 25 games, he scored 13 touchdowns and filled the highlight reel with spectacular catches.
Williams was the perfect fit for the H-position in Matt Limegrover’s offense. But the Gophers are excited to have Duke Anyanwu back from his knee injury. He was expected to be the No. 2 option behind Williams before he suffered a torn ACL on the second day of preseason camp.
Brandon Lingen gained experience this year as a true freshman, and the Gophers really like Jerry Gibson, a pass-catching tight end/wide receiver who redshirted this year.
Next step for Leidner
Can they establish a better passing attack?
Kill often draws comparisons between Mitch Leidner and Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who got benched as a sophomore before blossoming into an All-Big Ten selection.
But it’s sure helped Cook’s development having Tony Lippett to go get the ball. It’s time for the Gophers to develop a top-flight receiver of their own. Listening to the coaches, Isaiah Gentry could be that guy.
The Gophers were getting ready to pull Gentry’s redshirt this year before he injured a knee. During bowl practices, the coaches liked what they saw from Gentry and fellow redshirts Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant. If one emerges as top talent to go with returnees Drew Wolitarsky and KJ Maye, it might help Leidner take the next step.
Will the schedule be even tougher?
This year was no picnic. Four of Minnesota’s losses came to teams that likely will finish in the Top 15 — TCU, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Missouri.
After the rematch with TCU, the Gophers head to Colorado State, which went 10-3 this season but lost coach Jim McElwain to Florida, replacing him with former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
In Big Ten play, the Gophers will face Ohio State again, this time in Columbus. And they’ll play home games against three teams with new coaches: Michigan (Jim Harbaugh), Nebraska (Mike Riley) and Wisconsin (Paul Chryst).
Defense losing depth
Who fills the holes on defense?
Two other players coming back from ACL injuries could be key, as the Gophers look to replace four starters on defense.
Scott Ekpe tore up his knee on the first drive of the season, but he should be ready to replace Botticelli at tackle.
Cody Poock, a junior college transfer, looked poised to start at outside linebacker before tearing his ACL in spring practice. He returned to practice this fall, and the Gophers named him defensive scout team player of the year. Poock, Jack Lynn and Everett Williams are candidates to replace Wilson at middle linebacker.
The Gophers will miss Thompson at safety, but their secondary should be strong again with Boddy-Calhoun and fellow All-Big Ten selection Eric Murray back at cornerback.
A lot on the line
What about the offensive line?
Left guard Zac Epping started 47 consecutive games and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Tommy Olson converted to center and became one of the conference’s best at that position. Cobb got the glory, but those other two seniors were also big reasons the running game flourished.
One positive from the bowl game was seeing Jon Christenson start at right guard. It was his first start since he broke the fibula and tibia in his left leg at Indiana in November 2013. Christenson has starting experience at guard and center.
The Gophers know they’ll need their offensive line — and everyone, for that matter — to be atop their game for TCU.