The Gophers open the season tonight against Oregon State at TCF Bank Stadium. As I tweeted earlier, the start of the college football season is the most wonderful time of the year. Enjoy, folks!
Season openers always bring extra intrigue because it’s our first look at new players, new schemes and whether returning veterans made any discernible improvement.
While we await kickoff, here are a few things I’m most interested in from the Gophers:
- Mitch Leidner. Duh, right? Leidner is the obvious top story entering the season. He’s healthy again and has lost 20 pounds. I’m curious to see how he looks, throws and operates in Jay Johnson’s system. Leidner played well down the stretch last season despite a foot injury. Given his experience, renewed health and new offense, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t have a good senior season.
- Speaking of Jay Johnson’s system, we finally get to see how it looks. To me, the most interesting aspect is the freedom that Johnson gives Leidner to change plays at the line of scrimmage. That puts a lot of faith and trust in the quarterback to get the offense out of bad plays and into better plays depending on what he sees at the line. I’ll be curious to learn how many times Leinder changes a play during a game.
- The defense lost two terrific cornerbacks in Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, but the coaching staff thinks the secondary can be just as good this season. That speaks to Tracy Claeys’ and Jay Sawvel’s ability to recruit and develop talent at that position. The return of safety Damarius Travis is a nice starting point. Curious to see if Travis has any rust. He’s a difference-maker when he’s on the field and healthy.
- The defense has improved dramatically under Claeys, but pass rush remains an area that could use a spark. Sacks are not always an accurate barometer of an effective pass rush because teams often use quick-hitting passes to offset a rush. It’s hard to get to a quarterback who is getting rid of the ball quickly. That said, the Gophers haven’t finished higher than 56th nationally in sacks since 2011. They collected 22 sacks last season (84th). The Gophers d-line looks strong and deep up the middle but they need to generate a consistent outside rush.
- Tracy Claeys made the decision to move kicker Ryan Santoso to punter and give placekicking duties to Emmit Carpenter. It’s a bit of a gamble since Santoso was a reliable kicker from 50 yards and in last season. The move shows again that Claeys isn’t afraid to take risks he if thinks it will improve his team. It also opens himself to second-guessing if the move backfires.
- Who will replace KJ Maye as Leidner’s favorite, most trusted target? Maye nearly caught twice as many passes as the receiver second on the list, Drew Wolitarsky. Somebody has to pick up that slack.
- Will the offensive line be more physical, more aggressive and meaner, as advertised? New line coach Bart Miller had that group fired up in fall camp. My prediction: At least one offensive lineman will get a personal foul penalty tonight.