We’re well into the dog days of July, with spring practice nearly three months in the rear view and the open of preseason camps nationally set to arrive in less than a month. This week, as we look forward to August, it’s time to identify two key areas in which each Big Ten team must maximize the final weeks of this offseason.
Next up is Minnesota.
Devise a plan to protect QB Mitch Leidner. We know all about the legendary toughness of Minnesota’s junior quarterback. But enough is enough; Leidner needs to avoid injury this season instead of playing through it. A temptation exists to again allow the 6-foot-4, 236-pound Leidner to shoulder a heavy load in the running game. He has topped 400 yards on the ground in each of the past two seasons and last year ranked among eight Power 5 quarterbacks to account for 10 touchdowns rushing and passing. But inevitably, Leidner, at this rate, will suffer an injury that requires him to miss multiple games -- which would represent a huge setback for the Gophers. Without tight end Maxx Williams and workhorse back David Cobb, Minnesota must get creative in finding ways to move the chains without putting too much on its QB. With Rodrick Williams Jr. and Berkley Edwards, running back looks like a committee job -- and it could work well, with dynamic redshirt freshman Jeff Jones adding an explosive element from a variety of spots.
Prepare defensively for a fast pace. The uptempo offenses of college football surely spend hours each offseason in the fine-tuning stages. Like a sprinter who cares for his body or a race car that needs regular maintenance, a fast-paced offense needs refinement in the offseason. The same principles can apply on defense. Minnesota wins in part because of its smart, deliberate play -- on both side of the ball. But it appears, at times, a bit too flat-footed on the defensive side against a fast tempo. Sure, some of it is because of the athleticism of teams like TCU and Ohio State. But both appear as foes again on the Minnesota schedule in 2015. So instead of entering this season again unprepared to fare well on third down and in the red zone, the defensive Gophers ought to finish this offseason with a conditioning kick like they’ve never experienced. The secondary, led by the cornerback duo of Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray, can’t do it all for the Gophers on D, especially when their opponents strive to push the pace.