- Mitch Sherman, College Football
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A second straight eight-win season and a New Year's Day bowl game have pumped energy into Jerry Kill's program. The Golden Gophers host TCU to open the season in September in what figures to rate as one of the more hyped nonconference games in years for Minnesota.
Of more urgency, a spring awaits, flush with questions about how the Gophers plan to improve upon their recent success.
For an additional primer, check out our pre-sping look at the state of the program and key position battles.
Schedule: The Gophers open practice Tuesday, and will practice again Thursday. Both sessions are closed to the public, but the remaining 13 -- including, of course, the April 11 spring game at TCF Bank Stadium -- are open. Minnesota will break from practice March 13-23.
What's new? Not much, and therein lies the secret to Kill's success. His coaching staff remained intact, extending its longevity, unmatched elsewhere in college football. In addition to its losses to graduation, Minnesota must move on without star tight end Maxx Williams, who left early for the NFL and may give the Gophers a first-round pick for the first time since Laurence Maroney in 2006. Receiver Donovahn Jones, a sophomore reserve in 2014, was dismissed in December during Minnesota's prep work for the Citrus Bowl.
Biggest question: Who's going to make plays on offense? Quarterback Mitch Leidner, a rising junior, will handle an increased load in 2015, for sure, but he needs new playmakers to emerge this spring without Williams and workhorse David Cobb at running back. Top wideout Isaac Fruechte is also gone, leaving KJ Maye as the most experienced returning receiver with 16 catches in 13 games last year. Freshmen Desmond Gant, Isaiah Gentry and Melvin Holland Jr. sit among a solid cast of young receivers. At tight end and H-back, a crucial position set in this offense, Minnesota has a cupboard full of big bodies but little production on which to draw.
Three things we want to see:
1. The emergence of a featured back. Cobb rushed for nearly 3,000 yards over the past two seasons. The Gophers don't necessarily need a back of his durability to avoid a step back offensively, but this position works best if it's not by committee. Returning contributors Rodrick Williams Jr. and Berkley Edwards form a thunder-and-lightning duo. Redshirt freshman Jeff Jones, who ranked 137th in the ESPN 300 in the Class of 2014, looks like a strong candidate to step into a big role, Rodney Smith also redshirted last year out of Georgia.
2. A replacement for Damien Wilson. For two years, the Gophers had no worries at middle linebacker. Wilson made 119 tackles last season, including 10.5 behind the line of scrimmage, with four sacks, often cleaning up anything that penetrated the front four. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is looking to Everett Williams this spring after he earned a start against Iowa and played in eight games last year as a true freshman. Juco transfer Cody Poock, who missed last season with injury, returns to practice and may factor in this race, along with Jack Lynn.
3. Even more leadership from the secondary. The defensive backfield ranked arguably as the strength of the Minnesota defense in 2014 as the Gophers ranked among the top 20 nationally in passing yardage allowed per game and per attempt. Entering this spring, no argument exists; the secondary is the strong point, even without departed safety Cedric Thompson. When your best players are among your best workers, good things happen. Senior cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun can set an example on the practice field for the rest of the Gophers to follow.
As spring practices await, there are plenty of questions about how the Gophers plan to improve upon their recent success.