It’s finally time to start getting excited about the college football season. It’s less than a month away for the University of Minnesota, which hosts Eastern Illinois in its opener on Thursday, Aug. 28, at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers traveled to Chicago for Big 10 Media Day on Monday and Tuesday, bringing quarterback Mitch Leidner, running back David Cobb and defensive back Cedric Thompson as well as head coach Jerry Kill. It’s a pivotal year for the Gophers, who finished the regular season 8-4 last year before losing to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl. That record included four straight Big 10 Conference wins, something Minnesota hadn’t done in 40 years.
The Gophers open their fall camp on Friday, and there’s plenty of excitement around the program as it continues to make strides in Kill’s fourth season. Here are the top five things to watch this season.
Can Mitch Leidner be ‘The Guy’ at QB?
Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson split time at quarterback last season, but Nelson is gone after transferring and Leidner now has the keys to the offense. Leidner played in 10 games last season and only averaged about 62 passing yards per game last season with three passing touchdowns, but was used as more of a bruising running option in last year’s system. The Gophers will be deep at running back this season, so the team’s offensive success largely hinges on Leidner’s accuracy in the passing game.
Who becomes the No. 1 receiver?
The Gophers really didn’t have a No. 1 go-to receiver last year, and it showed when they needed to throw the ball down the field. Maxx Williams led Minnesota at tight end with 25 receptions and five touchdowns. Minnesota also played two freshmen last year in Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones, who combined for 25 receptions and one touchdown. We should also keep an eye on speedy K.J. Maye as well as incoming freshman Melvin Holland Jr. and Isaiah Gentry. The Gophers were last in the Big 10 in passing yards last season and it wasn’t close, so they’ll need a couple of these players to step up and make plays.
Who will lead the run game this year?
Without a doubt the Gophers strength this year will be running the ball. They return David Cobb for his senior season, who ran for more than 1,200 yards last year. Donnell Kirkwood was a 1,000-yard rusher two seasons ago before being limited due to injuries in 2013. Rodrick Williams, a bruising runner, is also back as an option for the Gophers. Minnesota fans might be most excited, though, about a guy who hasn’t seen one game snap yet: Berkley Edwards. He’s the younger brother of former Michigan star Braylon Edwards, and Kill his described Berkley since he arrived on campus as “lightning in a bottle.” He redshirted last year after an ankle sprain in fall camp, but coaches say he’s a threat to score every time he gets the ball.
Who Replaces Ra’Shede Hageman, Brock Vereen on defense?
The Gophers defense, anchored by NFL draft picks Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, made strides in 2013 as they allowed an average of 158 rushing yards and 215 passing yards per game. It’s now up to some newer faces with returning experience to take Minnesota’s defense to the next level. Cedric Thompson led the Gophers with 79 tackles last year and is back to anchor the secondary. Theiren Cockran is back on the defensive line after recording 30 tackles and a team-high 7.5 sacks. Eric Murray is also back after recording 52 tackles and 10 pass break-ups. The Gophers defense will be as athletic as any Kill has had yet, they just need it to translate on the field to get more wins this season.
Can the Gophers build off last season?
The Gophers made strides last season with four straight Big 10 wins, but to call it a turnaround for the program is speaking a bit prematurely. A loss to Syracuse, who was barely bowl eligible, was proof that the program still has a ways to go in its progression. But an 8-5 record was a positive step for Kill and the team. If the Gophers are going to improve their record this year, they’ll have to win early as their schedule is back-loaded with very tough games. Minnesota’s three non-conference home games (Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee State and San Jose State) should all be victories. They key game is at TCU on Sept. 13. Minnesota starts Big 10 play at Michigan Sept. 27. The last four games are home against Iowa and Ohio State, and on the road against Nebraska and Wisconsin.
It’s anyone’s guess as to how the season will transpire, but it should be fun to watch.