To our readers: Thank you for taking part in our Mailbag Monday this week. Star Tribune beat writers received many questions about the teams and leagues we cover, and each writer selected at least a couple of questions to answer. Look for a question and answer about each team in Wednesday’s Star Tribune.
Q: Which new starter do you think will have the biggest impact in 2020? – Jason Hendrix
A: Mmm, this is a tough one because I think there’s a couple answers on defense (where, like, all the new starters are). I think the easy pick is Boye Mafe at rush end as Carter Coughlin’s successor. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck was boasting about Mafe’s 40-inch vertical and general speed ahead of spring ball, calling the junior “twitched up.” I also randomly spent some time around him at the Outback Bowl when I went on a pilgrimage through Busch Gardens for a story, and he seemed like a really fun guy. But honestly, there’s a lot of guys on defense that excite me. I want to see what sophomore Tyler Nubin can do in Antoine Winfield Jr.’s stead. I’m intrigued by Justus Harris finally in a starting role at nickel. Braelen Oliver at linebacker. Honestly, I’m even looking forward to seeing new punter Mark Crawford. I’m so desperate for sports, please bring them back.
Q: What do you think will be the Gopher RB split next year? Does [Mohamed] Ibrahim get 70% of carries? – @JLiviMN
A: He’s definitely going to get the majority. I honestly think Fleck really liked how the breakdown went last season, with Rodney Smith, Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks splitting carries rather unselfishly. It actually went about 50-30-20. But that was a rotation where all three were starting-caliber. After Ibrahim for this upcoming season, the running back room is deep but unknown. Cam Wiley had some reps last season. Ky Thomas is a buzzed about freshman. Spring football would have been the time to see who was emerging. But I could definitely see Ibrahim taking 70% of the carries, for better or worse.
Q: How different do you expect the offense will look with the new coordinator? What might be the biggest changes, if any? – @DevinJanssen2
A: The Gophers new offensive coordinator, Mike Sanford Jr., has actually said it himself: He’s not looking to make wholesale changes. Which is a smart move. The offense worked last year under Kirk Ciarrocca, now at Penn State. Its success off run-pass, play-action helped the team average about 34 points per game and 432 yards per game. That’s not to say Sanford won’t add his unique flair to the system. It’s just hard to say what that is after having just one spring session to judge. But if I had to say something, I think Sanford might put some more on quarterback Tanner Morgan’s shoulders. I could see Morgan gaining a bit more control of the offense to call his own audibles and use his own judgment at the line of scrimmage. But expect the Gophers to be physical on the run game, using opportunities off that to throw downfield.
Q: After reading some spring football coverage I have a question: What is a “tight end”? It’s a position? And we have them on the team apparently? And people are saying the QB can even, like, throw to them? Is this real? – @kilpatrickjeff1
A: I can tell this is dripping with sarcasm, and I get it. The Gophers don’t throw to tight ends very often. Last year as a whole, tight ends caught 10 total passes, shared between Jake Paulson, Brevyn Spann-Ford and Bryce Witham (two touchdowns, though!). They’re used mostly as extra blockers. But, you know, things can change. Especially with Sanford now on as the new OC. So don’t lose hope. (Also side note, I like that throwing to tight ends has become the inside joke among Gophers football fans. When I covered Penn State, it was always going under center and fullbacks. I fielded so many questions about those topics, and I'm ready to carry on the tradition with tight ends now.)
Q: What does the QB depth chart look like for the Gophers this season? – @ravenclaw12
A: Like this: *TANNER MORGAN* ….. Zack Annexstad ………………… Cole Kramer/Jacob Clark (They’re still trading reps). Fleck and Morgan might be unwilling to name outright starters in spring ball, but I’m not. Morgan more than proved himself last year. This is his offense.
Q: Any word on negotiations between @GopherFootball and @BlackBearsFB for a scheduled game in 2026? – @ZJKeenan
A: Ambitious of you to think we’ll all collectively make it to 2026. (I couldn't resist the dark joke, please don't yell at me!)
Q: What’s your go-to lunch at [Joe] Senser’s for P.J.’s radio show? – @dg_kilgore
A: Finally, the question that’s been on everyone’s mind. Every Tuesday in the fall, I went to Fleck’s live radio show in Roseville and then left early to speed down 35W to get to his press conference. But when I could get a seat at the sports bar, I usually ordered one of the salads. I went through their whole rotation, and I think I determined the chicken chop was the best, close second to the seared ahi tuna. I’d also get the buffalo chicken salad sub ranch with no blue cheese crumbles and extra buffalo sauce. Tried some of the soups, and they were meh. Thank you for giving me this platform to share my food opinions.
(Check out the Puck Drop blog to see one of my Gophers hockey questions answered!)