With the 2013 college football season now in the rearview mirror, we're taking an early peek at the months ahead by looking at three items each Big Ten team must address before the 2014 season.
Up next: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
1. Decide on a quarterback: Minnesota rotated between sophomore Philip Nelson and redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner this past season. It appeared to be Nelson's team by the end of the regular season, but then Leidner played the majority of the snaps in the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Leidner is a little bit better runner while Nelson is a little bit better passer at this point, but neither has established himself as the clear-cut option. And while depth is always a good thing, the Gophers will be best served by identifying a true starter this spring. Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler could factor into the mix as well. The focus for each candidate in the coming weeks should simply be to get better, because Minnesota needs more out of the quarterback spot if it wants to take the next step. Which goes hand in hand with the next item ...
2. Get better at wide receiver: Minnesota's leading returning wide receiver next year will be Drew Wolitarsky, who had 15 catches for just 259 yards and one TD. The Gophers had one of the worst passing attacks in the country in 2013, and the lack of threats at the receiver position was a big reason why. The good news, if you're an optimist, is that Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones emerged as the top options late in the season, and both were true freshmen. They are talented and should improve as they mature. They also need more help there, whether it's from rising senior Isaac Fruechte, the oft-injured Jamel Harbison or an incoming recruit. Minnesota hasn't been able to stretch the field in the passing game for two years, and that must change.
3. Replace defensive stalwarts: While the majority of the roster returns, some very valuable defensive players will need to be replaced in 2014. That includes All-Big Ten defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, starting linebackers Aaron Hill and James Manuel and defensive back Brock Vereen, who was versatile enough to play both cornerback and safety as needed. There's no real substitute for Hageman's sheer athleticism, but the team is high on sophomore Scott Ekpe's potential. Minnesota has recruited well recently at linebacker and defensive back, so some in-house solutions should be ready. The Gophers' defense was very solid in 2013 and should stay that way if adequate replacements emerge.
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