Jerry Kill’s Minnesota Golden Gophers have won eight games in two consecutive seasons now, but somehow they never get mentioned among the division contenders. I’m telling you now don’t forget about the Golden Gophers. Programs like this sometimes struggle when they lose as much NFL talent as this Minnesota team did last year, but they bring enough back that they should be able to compete and at least make a decent run at the West division crown.
It gets extremely cold in Minnesota, and for those of you who don’t know, catching a rock hard, cold football is easily one of the twenty to twenty-five least fun things to do in the world. (One of many reasons why I can’t blame Tom Brady too much for “Deflate-gate” but that’s for another day). Anyway, the initial point I wanted to make with that is to say that if you intend to be successful in Minnesota you have to run the football.
Minnesota’s offensive line is good enough that if they can find a suitable replacement for David Cobb at running back, then they ought to be pretty tough to stop on the ground. Josh Campion, a three-year starter at right guard, has garnered some preseason all-conference praise. There are also five other linemen on this team with seven or more career starts, so while this isn’t the most experienced line in the country, they aren’t exactly spring chickens either.
Continuing in the run game, David Cobb’s 1,600+ rushing yards and 13 touchdowns are a tough loss, but there are a pair of running backs ready to try to replace Cobb. Rodrick Williams, Jr. is the favorite to receive most of the carries. Williams had 23 carries for 114 yards and three touchdowns last season. Sophomore Berkley Edwards should also have a major contribution in the run game. Edwards carried the ball 30 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns in 2014. These two have a long way to go to match Cobb’s production, but with more opportunities it is at least feasible.
The Gophers also benefit from having a quarterback that can help in the running game. Mitch Leidner is one of five quarterbacks I’ve ever heard of who can aptly be described as a “bruiser”. (The other four are Tim Tebow, Blake Bell, Jeremy Liggins and the “Hefty Lefty” himself, Jared Lorenzen). Leidner had 600 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on non-sack carries last year. He could stand to improve in the passing game where he completed just over half of his passes for 1,798 yards and 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions.
Leidner does lose the majority of his receiving options from last year, including stud tight end Maxx Williams. K.J. Maye is the only proven commodity at receiver. Maye caught 16 passes for 298 yards last season. Drew Wolitarsky is the only other receiver on the team who topped 100 yards receiving last year hauling in 10 passes for 106 yards. If Leidner can mesh with his new targets though, a step forward in the passing game is possible if Leidner progresses as a passer himself.
For those road games in warmer weather that allow offense to open up more, Minnesota has a pesky secondary that should be equally as good a deterrant to passing the football as frigid temperatures. Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray are one of the top cornerback duos in the conference. Boddy-Calhoun was a turnover machine last year with five interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Murray didn’t exhibit quite the nose for the football, but he proved an adept defender with 58 tackles, an interception and seven pass break-ups. Safety Damarius Travis also returns, and he reeked his fair share of havoc too breaking up five passes, intercepting two, forcing a fumble and recovering a fumble.
Theiren Cockran and Steven Richardson should provide a formidable presence on the defensive line. The pair combined for 13 tackles for loss and six sacks last season. Scott Ekpe also returns as an interior defensive lineman alongside Richardson. Ekpe was supposed to be the primary starter last season, but suffered a season ending injury in the first game of the year.
Damien Wilson is the only linebacker from last year’s team not to return, but he is a big loss. Wilson had 91 tackles, 10.5 for loss, and four sacks last season. De’Vondre Campbell and Jack Lynn are both back and combined for 107 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss, which isn’t too shabby, but as you can see these two combined weren’t that much more productive than Wilson by himself. As of now Cody Poock is the guy tasked with stepping into Wilson’s role, and a big part of how good this defense is at stopping the run in 2015 depends on how well he does it.
This team is dangerous, and is a pretty safe bet to pull off at least one upset at home this season. I don’t believe that will come in the opener against TCU, and they likely won’t be able to pull off the upset on the road at Ohio State. However, Minnesota gets division rivals Nebraska and Wisconsin at home this year, and if I’m a betting man I’m picking the Golden Gophers to take at least one of those games this season. Other than that the schedule is reasonably manageable, and if they could somehow beat both Nebraska and Wisconsin at home then the division should be theirs.