Spring is a time for renewal. In football programs around the Big Ten, new faces must emerge to fill the roles vacated by departed contributors.
At Minnesota, the most notable set of shoes to fill belong to the coach, with Tracy Claeys now taking over full time for Jerry Kill and putting his stamp on the program. But as the attention shifts to the roster and the players trying to get the Gophers back in contention in the West Division, there are a handful of spots that stand out as the most important to address in spring practice.
B1G shoes to fill: WR KJ Maye
Why: As the Gophers try to expand the passing attack and become a more dangerous, balanced offense, they will have to try to take a step forward without their top target from a year ago. Maye blossomed into far and away the most consistent option for quarterback Mitch Leidner last season, catching 73 passes and five touchdowns, and living up to his pledge to become a legitimate No. 1 wideout for the Gophers. Now they will need to find a a new one.
The skinny: Wolitarsky is at the head of the line and has proven capable of moving the chains, averaging more than 13 yards per catch a season ago while finishing with 39 receptions overall. His experience and familiarity with Leidner should prove beneficial as he tries to take over the primary role with Maye gone, but Carter and Still both have upside that could help take the offense to a higher level. Still opened some eyes during his freshman campaign with touchdown grabs against both Michigan and Ohio State, and he’s got the physical tools to be a matchup problem for plenty of cornerbacks.
Why: The two talented defensive backs have been a package deal for the past couple seasons, and there is no sense in separating them now as the Gophers try to replace both of them in the starting lineup. The tandem worked well together in the Minnesota secondary, playing off the strengths of the other, making life miserable for receivers and delivering some timely turnovers. As they head off to the NFL, the Minnesota defense is facing a tall order to reload at those crucial positions.
The skinny: The Gophers have no shortage of confidence in Myrick, and he has already proven he can deliver when called on to step up, either to fill in for the former starters or contribute alongside them in the secondary. The veteran already has seven starts to his credit and snagged three interceptions last season, so Minnesota should only need to worry about finding one more starter at cornerback. Both Hardin and Shenault showed lockdown potential as true freshmen last season, and that competition could be heated and last all the way into training camp. The youngsters combined to make 28 tackles and break up a couple passes despite their limited roles, and the future of a position that has been perhaps Minnesota’s strongest in recent years appears to be in good hands.