Many questions for Gophers after disappointing season
MINNEAPOLIS — It's necessary — cathartic, even — to turn the page to next year after the Gophers were outscored by a combined 70-0 against Northwestern and Wisconsin to squash this season.
After the Saturday, Nov. 25, 31-0 loss to the No. 5 Badgers, Minnesota (5-7, 2-7 Big Ten) missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2012.
"That's not ... the ultimate goal," first-year Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said of a postseason spot. "We played a top-five team, and we proved we are not capable of beating a top-five team. That's what it showed. That doesn't mean it's not going to happen in the future. We will be better. We. Will. Be. Better."
To improve, the first item on the Gophers' to-do list is to improve its passing offense. Minnesota finished 122nd out of 130 FBS programs with 126 yards per game. Quarterback Demry Croft, who relieved senior Conor Rhoda midseason, didn't have more than nine completions or 139 passing yards in any of his six starts to finish the year.
Right now, the Gophers have at least 20 departing players, including nine starters against the Badgers at TCF Bank Stadium.
After the game, Fleck knew he was going to repeat himself, but he said it anyway: The Gophers will be younger next season. "We got a long way to go," he cautioned.
Here are five questions heading into 2018:
Who is the future quarterback?
After being suspended for three weeks earlier this season, Croft showed flashes, with three late touchdown passes against Michigan State and setting a school QB single-game rushing record against Nebraska. Overall, he completed 41 percent of his passes, with four touchdowns and seven interceptions across nine games.
As a redshirt junior, Croft will have the most experience at the position heading into next fall, but another quarterback competition is anticipated. Redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan is the primary competition right now. The battle could include redshirt sophomore Seth Green, if he remains on the team.
Fleck wants to bring in one, or potentially two, quarterbacks in the 2018 recruiting class after the Gophers and former pledge Brennan Armstrong, from Shelby, Ohio, officially parted ways last week. That opened up a spot in the class.
Riverside (California) City College quarterback Vic Viramontes was visiting Dinkytown on Sunday. The former Cal transfer would have three years of eligibility remaining. The Gophers also have extended scholarship offers to at least four other high school quarterbacks for 2018.
With national signing day moved up to Dec. 20 starting this year, the void at quarterback is the most important spot left to fill.
How will the receiver corps look?
When leading receiver Tyler Johnson was lost for the season with a broken hand before the Northwestern game, no one stepped up as a viable alternative. Even with Johnson, the team lacked second and third options most of the season and was plagued by dropped passes, particularly down the stretch.
Johnson will be an important incumbent next season, with other candidates already in house or on their way. True freshman Demetrius Douglas was the Gophers' No. 2 receiver before he was lost to a season-ending lower-body injury in nonconference play. He is expected back. Chris Autman-Bell, who broke his hand in training camp, was redshirted this fall and could be a key contributor next fall.
Incoming freshmen Rashod Bateman, Jornell Manns and Eric Gibson are also looked at as players capable of playing next fall.
"The 2018 class is the first true big recruiting class to bring in," Fleck said Saturday. "We are excited about them. We got to finish them up here in the next few weeks. And they should look at it as an opportunity to come in here and play. They really should."
Which young players need to step up?
Beyond receiver, defensive end Ezezi Otomewo of Indianapolis will emerge from his redshirt year. Based on his practices this fall, Fleck called him a "freak" with an enormous upside at 6 feet 6 and 240 pounds.
With Otomewo and four-star incoming true freshmen Alex Reigelsperger, of Dayton, Ohio, the Gophers could move Carter Coughlin from defensive end back to his more natural linebacker spot.
This could make the defense — which carried the Gophers in 2017 — better next season. The move of Coughlin also would reunite the all-Minnesota-native linebacking corps of Thomas Barber, Kamal Martin and Coughlin.
Barber emerged as a defensive leader and tackling machine this fall. He will be a leader along with Antoine Winfield Jr., the top player in the secondary, who returns from a nagging hamstring injury. The Gophers will seek a medical redshirt for Winfield, the son of the former Vikings cornerback by the same name.
With senior guards Vincent Calhoun and Garrison Wright gone, redshirt freshmen tackle Blaise Andries, the top Minnesota native in the 2017 class, likely will be called upon for his first action and also prove his high regard.
How does defensive tackle shape up?
Among the 16 departing seniors, three are on the interior defensive line — the most affected position group on the roster.
Fleck was gobsmacked when he was hired in January that there is a lack of underclassman depth behind outgoing players Steven Richardson, Merrick Jackson and Andrew Stelter.
The Gophers netted Alabama transfer O.J. Smith to help fill the gap, and incoming true freshman D-tackle Elijah Teague of Chicago is the second-highest-rated incoming player in the class behind Reigelsperger, according to 247sports.com.
How many additional players will depart?
The number of other players exiting could rise as the offseason continues.
"You had players that were bought in right away," Fleck said. "You had people that were bought in six months later, and you have maybe some people that haven't bought in even yet."
Receiver Rashad Still, who was suspended earlier this season, was away from the team against the Badgers. Fleck didn't provide specifics and said he would "re-evaluate" Still's status with the team this week.
"You have guys staying, going, leaving, graduating, transferring, suspended, quitting," Fleck said. "That's all a tough transition for these young people, and so every day the team was evolving."