Minnesota Golden Gophers season preview


Previewing the 2014 season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

2013 overall record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key returnees: David Cobb, RB; Maxx Williams, TE; Theiren Cockran, DE; Mitch Leidner, QB; Josh Campion OT.

Key losses: Phillip Nelson, QB; Ra'Shede Hageman, DT; Brock Vereen, CB; Ed Olson, LT; Aaron Hill, LB.

Instant impact newcomer: Melvin Holland Jr. wasn't technically the highest-rated recruit in Minnesota's 2014 signing class, but the four-star receiver looks like a smart bet to make his mark the quickest for the program this fall. The Gophers are still trying to build their passing attack and add weapons around Leidner, and Holland has already made a strong impression on teammates and coaches with his quick adjustment to the college game and a 6-foot-3 frame that could make him an intriguing target.

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Mitch Leidner, So., 6-4, 237; RB: David Cobb, Sr., 5-11, 229; WR: Donovahn Jones, So., 6-3, 200 ; WR: Drew Wolitarsky, So., 6-3, 226; WR: KJ Maye, Jr., 5-10, 195; TE: Maxx Williams, So., 6-4, 250; LT: Ben Lauer, So., 6-7, 315; LG: Zac Epping, Sr., 6-2, 318; C: Tommy Olson, Sr., 6-4, 306; RG: Foster Bush, Jr., 6-5, 304; RT: Josh Campion, Jr., 6-5, 317.

Defense: DE: Theiren Cockran, Jr., 6-6, 255, ; DT: Scott Ekpe, Jr., 6-4, 293; DT: Cameron Botticelli, Sr., 6-5, 281, ; DE: Michael Amaefula, Sr., 6-2, 249 ; LB: De'Vondre Campbell, Jr., 6-5, 226; LB: Damien Wilson, Sr., 6-2, 249; LB: Jack Lynn, So., 6-3, 238; CB: Derrick Wells, Sr., 6-0, 201; CB: Eric Murray, Jr., 6-0, 195; S: Cedric Thompson, Sr., 6-0, 208; S: Damarius Travis, Jr., 6-2, 211.

Specialists: K: Ryan Santoso, Fr., 6-6, 245; P: Peter Mortell, Jr., 6-2, 192.

Biggest question mark: The offense is his alone to run, and, fair or not, how successful this season turns out for the Gophers will be tied to the development of their sophomore quarterback. Minnesota didn't ask Leidner to do all that much as a passer when he was on the field last season, but he was generally efficient and avoided many major mistakes while throwing just one interception in 78 attempts. That workload figures to increase dramatically, and the Gophers are going to need him to keep defenses honest by bumping up his completion percentage from 55 and stretching the field with some deep shots to prevent opponents from loading up the box to stop Cobb and the rushing attack.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at home against Iowa. If the Gophers are going to go from preseason dark horse to actual contender in the West division, taking care of the Hawkeyes entering the stretch run in November will be absolutely critical. Minnesota has to play all three of its divisional foes, which are currently tabbed as the favorites in the West in the final month of the season, but it gets Iowa at home only before playing Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. If the Gophers can't defend TCF Bank Stadium against the Hawkeyes, the brutal back-to-back trips to take on the Huskers and Badgers might not mean much for them in the standings.

Upset special: Sept. 13 at TCU. The Horned Frogs have no shortage of defensive talent and will be much more comfortable in the September conditions in Texas. But Minnesota's rushing attack combined with a TCU offense undergoing a bit of transition could allow the Gophers to shorten the game and keep the score down, which might allow them to sneak out with a nonconference victory that would be meaningful for both them and the rest of the Big Ten.

Key stat: Only eight teams in the nation threw for fewer yards per game than Minnesota did a year ago, when the Gophers averaged 148.1 per game through the air. They averaged just more than 10 completions per game, dragging down an offense that collectively finished No. 11 in the Big Ten and put a ton of pressure on the defense on a weekly basis.

What they're wearing: The Gophers haven't gone overboard with multiple sets of uniforms since the redesign in 2012, but they have on occasion switched up their helmets. The school reached a new deal over the summer that will keep the team in Nike gear, and the lucrative contract will if nothing else allow the Gophers to still have plenty of options presented to them when they want to switch up the style.

Team's top Twitter follows: The face of the program has an account, and Leidner (@MitchLeidner7) has recently been helpful in providing some behind-the-scenes looks at the team as it goes through training camp. Thompson (@cedjunior2) is a humorous follow and could become a friend if you have a drill he can borrow. Cockran (@TCockran55) is worth an add as well, although it might be best to wait since he vowed not to use any social media until the end of August. The team account (@GopherFootball) does a fantastic job providing video and audio updates.

They said it: "I think there's no question we want to continue to improve on what we did last year. We won eight games, and I think anytime you go into the Big Ten and if you don't have a mission to win the Big Ten, then why play?" -- Gophers coach Jerry Kill.

Stats & Information projection: 5.48 wins.

Wise guys over/under: 6.5 wins.

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. The Gophers were one of the most surprising teams in the league a year ago thanks in large part to a defense that was capable of handling such a heavy load all season long. And while there are seven starters back for that unit, and the offense should take a step forward with eight first-team returners back this fall, the schedule might hide the improvements Minnesota figures to make this season. The Gophers are going to be a tough out for every opponent, but getting back to another bowl game should be considered a success against this slate.