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College Football Preview 2022: 21. Minnesota Golden Gophers


Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota

21. Minnesota Golden Gophers

After coming up just short in both 2019 and 2021, a veteran offense helps Minnesota claim a Big Ten West Title this year

2021 Review
There isn't a lot tougher foes to open a season against than the Ohio State Buckeyes, who the Gophers square off against to begin 2021. Although they fought valiantly, Minnesota couldn't match Ohio State's talent over four quarters, resulting in a 45-31 defeat. Even more disappointing than the defeat, however, was the loss of reigning Big Ten RB of the Year Mohamed Ibrahim, who tore his Achilles mere hours into the season. Even without Ibrahim, the Gophers won their next two before a baffling, humiliating loss during Homecoming to Bowling Green. They recovered to win their next four Big Ten games before the offense sputtered against Illinois and Iowa, two losses that cost the team a shot at the Big Ten Championship Game. A resounding victory over Wisconsin to win back Paul Bunyan's Axe put a nice cap on the regular season before the Gophers ran past West Virginia in the GuaranteedRate Bowl. A 9-4 record was a nice way to respond after a frustrating, COVID-shortened 2020, but also left you wanting a bit more. If not for the shocking losses to Bowling Green and Illinois, Minnesota would have gone 10-2 in the regular season and played for a league title. That should provide an extra bit of motivation for the program as they head into 2022.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. was a questionable hire when P.J. Fleck brought him in following the 2019 campaign, and the results speak for themselves. There was a complete lack of creativity as the offense averaged just 25.5 PPG (7th in the league, 83rd nationally) and just over 360 yards per game (ninth Big Ten, 99th nationally). 

Fleck opted to move on from Sanford over the offseason and instead turn to Kirk Ciarrocca, a former assistant of his who was formerly OC in Minneapolis from 2017-2019. Ciarrocca took the same job at Penn State for 2020 but was fired after just one year, before spending a season on West Virginia's staff. He's a no-brainer hire for Flecl, bringing in a guy who knows the program and most of the personnel.

The No. 1 goal for Ciarrocca will be getting Tanner Morgan back on track after a pair of underwhelming seasons. Morgan totaled 2,044 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air last fall, with rough showings in some of Minnesota's biggest games. Morgan's never going to be an elite, All-Conference QB, but he's better than what we saw last season and should return close to his 2019 form. 

It wasn't just Mohamed Ibrahim who went down at tailback for Minnesota in 2021. His backup, Treyson Potts, suffered a season upper-body injury that cost him the final few months of the year. Then, third-stringer Bryce Williams went down with a season-ending leg injury, costing the Gophers three proven, veteran ball-carriers.

Minnesota was forced to turn to redshirt freshman Ky Thomas and true freshman Mar'Keise "Bucky" Irving, and the pair performed tremendously. Thomas finished as the leading rusher, with 824 yards and six scores, while Irving added 699 and four of his own. Unfortunately, the realities of modern college football struck this offseason, with the pair both transferring. Thomas went back home to his native Kansas and has a chance to start for the Kansas Jayhawks, while Irving heads to the West Coast and Oregon.

Losing Thomas and Irving stings, but Minnesota returns the entire trio of Ibrahim, Potts, and Williams. There are obvious injury concerns here, with all three coming back from significant injuries, but it's an incredibly experienced, capable running back room. If Ibrahim can return to his old form, he's one of the nation's best, and Potts is not your average backup. He's shown he can more than handle the load, although the Gophers will be cautious bringing him back up to speed.

The receiver corps may be the strength of the offense. It doesn't have the injury concerns the backfield has and is full of talented weapons. Chief among them is senior Chris Autman-Bell, who wasn't ever 100 percent in 2021 but still managed 506 yards and six touchdowns. Autman-Bell has gotten better each year he's been in the Twin Cities and should be in store for a special grand finale this fall. He's flanked by the trio of Daniel Jackson, Dylan Wright, and Michael Brown-Stephens. Wright, a former Texas A&M transfer, may be the most talented player on the entire offense, but he has to develop more consistency, while Jackson and Brown-Stephens have flashed potential and are awaiting their respective breakthroughs. 

Tight end has not been a position heavily featured in this offense under Fleck but at some point, we are going to see it all come together for senior Brevyn Spann-Ford. Spann-Ford is simply too talented and too dynamic not to be doing more for this offense; I have a feeling Ciarrocca will do more things to get him the ball this season. 

The chief concern on offense comes on the offensive line, where the Gophers said goodbye to four starters and a capable reserve in Curtis Dunlap Jr. The lone returning starter is a good one, as senior center John Michael Schmitz could be a serious candidate for the Rimington Trophy this season. Beyond him, there's loads of questions, although the additions of Michigan transfer Chuck Filiaga and Notre Dame transfer Quinn Carroll were huge. The tackle spots should both see position battles throughout fall camp and will be an X-Factor for this offense in 2022.

I'm confident in a resurgent 2022 for this offense. Morgan, Ibrahim, and Autman-Bell combine to form one of the most experienced QB, RB, WR trios in the entire country and bringing back Ciarrocca is a major improvement over Sanford. Expect growing pains along the O-Line, but there's enough pieces there to keep this unit humming along this fall.

Defense: 2020 was an extremely disappointing year for the Gopher defense. They were prone to the big play and couldn't get any consistent pass rush generated during the COVID-shortened campaign. In response, the Gophers brought in several transfers and juggled up their defensive scheme.

The response proved to be a good one for the defense, which posted Top 10 numbers across the board. The unit allowed just 278.8 yards per game in 2021, which was third in the entire country. Needless to say, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi earned a hefty contract extension for his work, and remains a rising name among coaching circles. 

The primary goal for Rossi and the rest of the defensive staff will be rebuilding a defensive line that was hit hard by departures over the offseason. Defensive ends Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo were both drafted, while Micah Dew-Treadaway and Nyles Pinckney are also gone. Expect senior Thomas Rush to take on an expanded role at rush end after notching 5.5 sacks in 2021. Rush isn't the athlete Mafe or Otomewo were, but he's an experienced defender with a proven pedigree. It's unclear who will start opposite of Rush at the other end spot. Sophomore Jah Joyner is a potential breakout candidate but hasn't put it all together yet, meaning Vanderbilt transfer Lorenza Surgers could have the upper hand right now. Surgers played 18 games over four seasons while in Nashville, but wasn't able to find consistent playing time on the Commodores. With how thin the Gophers currently are at defensive end, he is a lock to see plenty of action this fall.

On the interior D-Line, the Gophers are hoping this is the year for DeAngelo "Trill" Carter. The junior has impressed each of the last two seasons, including a 20 tackles, 5 TFL performance in 2021, but even more should be expected. He's the most naturally talented player on the entire defensive line and has demonstrated impressive athleticism for his size. Another player Minnesota is hoping for more from is junior Logan Richter, who has received plenty of hype throughout his time in the Twin Cities but hasn't seen the field much. After playing in four games in 2021, don't be shocked if he's a Day One starter this season. The Gophers had success bringing in Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney a year ago, so they went down to South Carolina once again and landed defensive tackle Darnell Jefferies. Jefferies isn't quite the player Pinckney was, but played a bunch of football at Clemson and should fit in nicely in the Big Ten.

Even with the departure of Jack Gibbens, the team's leading tackler last year, the linebacker corps should be in a good spot. Senior Mariano Sori-Marin has earned the ire of Gopher fans at times over the years, but played tremendous ball in 2021, finishing second on the team in tackles. He should have no issue taking up a leadership role with Gibbens now gone. Slated to start next to him is Braelen Oliver, another guy who has flashed plenty of potential, but is still waiting to put it all together. He earned "Outstanding Defensive Freshman" back in 2019 but was sidelined in 2020 with an injury and started seven games last fall. 

This secondary could challenge as the best in the Big Ten and a Top 10 unit nationally. They may lose an important piece in longtime corner Coney Durr, but just about every other big name is back in the fold. Sophomore corner Justin Walley is already on his way to superstardom; he earned Freshman All-American honors last season and should be even better with a full offseason under his belt. He'll lock down one corner spot, with senior Terrell Smith and Abilene Christian transfer Ryan Stapp set to battle it out opposite of him. Smith began last year as the starter before giving way to Walley and was limited in the spring, while Stapp is a veteran who follows Gibbens up from Abilene.

The safety spots are in good hands, as the Gophers bring back two veteran defenders in Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden. Both have been a part of the program for several years at this point and do what's asked of them. Nubin finished third on the team in tackles and also led the team with three interceptions, while Howden finished just behind him with 43 tackles. There's depth behind this pair, even with Calvin Swenson graduating and Solomon Brown transferring. Jalen Glaze has flashed on special teams and is a guy I'm super high on, and we could also see former big-time recruit Steven Ortiz Jr. contribute here. He came into college as a corner, but should see more playing time at safety.

Rounding out the secondary is nickelback, where Justus Harris departs. Fortunately, there's transfer help here in the form of Western Kentucky transfer Beanie Bishop, who earned All-Conference USA honors in 2021. There may be a slight learning curve as he adjusts to the Big Ten, but Minnesota should feel good about him moving forward. One last name to mention in the defensive backfield is Michael Dixon, who should play all over the field. Dixon has played in 17 games during his Gopher career, but most of it has been as a reserve. He dominated during spring and is simply too good to keep off the field; he'll contribute, whether it's at nickel, safety, corner, or even a hybrid linebacker spot.

While the defensive line will have to reload, you have to trust Rossi and the rest of this defensive staff to figure it out. He's engineered a complete turnover of the defense since taking over midseason back in 2018 and the program as a whole has done a much better job recruiting this side of the ball. It will be difficult to replicate last year's success, but I wouldn't be shocked if this remains a Top 25 unit.

Special Teams: Minnesota sports fans don't have to be reminded of the entire state's special teams woes on the gridiron, although placekicker Matthew Trickett was okay in 2021. He went 17 for 25 on field goal attempts, but you'd like to see him get even better. Punter is in a good spot with the return of Mark Crawford, who averaged just under 42 yards per punt last year. The return game is a real mystery, as the team's top returners for both kickoffs and punts are gone. 

Bottom Line: Love him or hate him, I'm not sure how anyone can deny what a superb job P.J. Fleck has done in the Twin Cities. He's built the program into a consistent Big Ten West frontrunner and beat Wisconsin for the second time in 2021, a school that had absolutely owned the Gophers for decades. As he embarks on Year Six, two notable things remain off his resume: beating the school's other chief rival, Iowa, and a Big Ten West Title. With the Hawkeyes playing in Minneapolis this fall after the Gophers outplayed them essentially the whole way in 2021, I'm picking him to do both this season. Perhaps there is a bit of bias here as a lifelong Gopher fan, but in a division without an overwhelming favorite, I'll go with the team loaded with experience here. After coming so close in both 2019 and 2021, the Gophers represent the Big Ten West in the Championship Game, getting an opportunity to avenge last year's defeat against Ohio State in Indianapolis.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
P.J. Fleck's loud and unique style have a tendency to rub people the wrong way, but he's 35-23 at Minnesota and has delivered three bowl victories, plus a Top 10 finish in 2019. There have been rumors he may be interested in a bigger job at some point, but seems content with his current situation, at least for the time being. He reunites with Kirk Ciarrocca, who has spent most of his time coaching on the East Coast before following Fleck from Western Michigan to the Twin Cities. Defensively, coordinator Joe Rossi should be in line for a promotion soon enough after a tremendous 2021. This isn't his first rodeo in the Big Ten as DC, as he held the same position at Rutgers from 2014-2015. 

Recruiting Breakdown
Fleck and this staff have elevated Minnesota's recruiting, although the 2022 Class is merely okay, ranking 49th in the 247Sports composite. Fortunately, the two highest-rated players come at the biggest need position on the team, defensive line. Trey Bixby is a local kid from in-state powerhouse Eden Prairie who has a bright future and the Gophers also went in to the state of Pennsylvania to land four-star Anthony Smith. Smith is probably a better bet to play right away, as he already looks the part at 6'6", 280 pounds, but I wouldn't be shocked if both see playing time in 2022. On the offensive side, Minnesota landed capable weapons at each of the skill positions. Jacob Knuth was the QB they took this cycle, a three-star prospect out of South Dakota. Tailback Zach Evans was a nice get from Texas who could see some early action with the injury concerns in the backfield, while wide outs Kristen Hoskins and Ike White offer plenty of playmaking potential.

2022 X-Factor: DeAngelo "Trill" Carter, DL
Play along the trenches will likely decide what type of season the Gophers have this fall and just how high their ceiling is. The defensive line in particular enters the fall with some notable questions, with Thomas Rush and DeAngelo Carter the only two regular contributors from last year still on the team. Rush has proven to be capable, but Carter is the player I'm watching. He's had some really impressive moments in a Gopher uniform, but the potential is there for him to get even better. If he can reach that next level, he has the chance to be one of the most impactful defenders of the Fleck era and be the anchor of a capable and high upside D-Line. If he isn't, the defensive line concerns could linger deep into fall and in turn, lead to a step-back for the defense as a whole.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten, Lose Big Ten Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Mohamed Ibrahim
Defensive MVP: CB Justin Walley
Breakout Player of the Year: DE Jah Joyner
Impact Freshman: RB Zach Evans

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