- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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To get you ready for spring practice, which kicks off this month, we're taking a look at how each team might fill the roles of two key contributors who are no longer on campus.
Up next, Minnesota.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Kim Royston, S
Why: Royston was one of few bright spots for a Minnesota defense that struggled mightily for much of the season but finished well. He recorded 123 tackles, the fourth-highest total in the Big Ten and the most on the Gophers by 36 stops. He recorded one of the team's four interceptions on the season and had 3.5 tackles for loss, including a sack, and two pass breakups. Royston's 71 solo tackles were 18 more than any other Gophers player in 2011. He provided leadership for a secondary that lacked it and earned the Carl Eller Award as Minnesota's top defensive player.
The skinny: The return of cornerback Troy Stoudermire should help Minnesota replace Royston's production, but the team remains extremely unproven at safety. Will this be Manuel's time to shine? Minnesota certainly could use a big season from the junior, who had only 11 tackles in 10 games this past season. Wells had similar numbers (8 tackles, 11 games) in a reserve role but could challenge for a starting spot. Baltazar and Carter both are more natural cornerbacks but could help at nickelback. Montgomery, who isn't afraid to hit people, could be a factor here. The concern is Minnesota lacks many natural safeties and likely needs to have a by-committee approach to the position.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Da'Jon McKnight, WR
Why: Like Royston, McKnight was by far Minnesota's most productive player at his position in 2011. He recorded 51 catches, 35 more than any other Gophers player. He had twice as many touchdown catches (4) and 570 more receiving yards than anyone else on the roster. He led Minnesota in receiving in each of his final two seasons and was one of the more underrated wideouts in the Big Ten. McKnight made 30 starts in his career and was always MarQueis Gray's first option in the passing game.
Replacement candidates: Brandon Green (6-foot, 186, Sr.); Malcolm Moulton (5-11, 186, Jr.); Marcus Jones (5-8, 170, So.); Devin Crawford-Tufts (6-2, 191, So.); Andre McDonald (6-2, 200, Fr.); Jamel Harbison (5-11, 195, Fr.)
The skinny: Wide receiver will be one of the more intriguing positions to watch both in spring practice and in preseason camp when heralded recruits McDonald and Harbison arrive. Green has started 18 games in his career but needs to take his game to the next level. Most of Minnesota's returning players are smaller wideouts, so a bigger player like McDonald could fill in well for McKnight, whose size made him a threat on the outside. There's good speed in the group with players like Jones, who averaged 15.8 yards a catch as a freshman and led the team with 370 kick returns yards and a touchdown.
4dBrian Bennett and Josh Moyer