It may have been moved indoors due to an April snowstorm, but the Minnesota Gophers spring game was packed with action — and a trophy for the winning side! To find out more about what we can expect from the team in the upcoming season, we talked with Megan Ryan, sports reporter for the Star Tribune and expert on the Minnesota Gophers. She gave us the deets on who the starting QB might be, how the RB workload might be distributed at the beginning of the season, and more. Check out more from Ryan on Twitter @theothermegryan, and see how the Gophers stack up against other players on our rankings page.
Overall, how do you believe the offense will compare to the 2018 version?
Well, I think it will be better. Not to say that last year’s was terrible. The Gophers started eight freshmen on offense in last season’s Quick Lane Bowl but averaged 28.9 points per game, which ties for seventh most since 1955 for the program. The 46 touchdowns tie for fifth, the 4,935 yards are sixth, the 269 first downs are third and the 2,714 passing yards are eighth. And, by the way, the Gophers were the only team in the nation with all freshman quarterbacks. That’s a lot of numbers to throw at you, but the offense was surely the Gophers strength last season (the defense was … a little iffy until the end of the year). And this year with many returners, I expect it to be even better. Those freshman QBs are now sophomores with game experience. Tyler Johnson as a senior leads an incredible receiving corps. The running back group will benefit from two veteran returns from injury and a new breakout star. Even the offensive line has the potential to be one of the Big Ten’s best, according to coach P.J. Fleck, despite it being still quite young. So I think there’s a lot to look forward to on that side of the ball.
What do you expect from the QB position in 2019?
That’s still a bit TBD tbh (to use a bunch of acronyms). It will most certainly be either sophomore Zack Annexstad or redshirt sophomore Tanner Morgan starting. Annexstad won the battle in training camp last year, but Morgan took over about halfway through after Annexstad went out with some injuries. And under Morgan, the team mounted its best wins in the Wisconsin and bowl games. Fleck has been coy most of spring, saying each player improves incrementally each day, and neither is jumping ahead in the competition. So we’ll just have to wait and see. It seems to me that Annexstad has the clutch-throw ability, so to say. But Morgan has a certain something about him, a calming leadership presence, that you just can’t count out. But either way, both return experience and will benefit from strong receivers and backs.
How do you see the workload at RB being distributed?
Sounds like another TBD to me, haha. Honestly, it will probably be a rotation to begin the season, but it will be interesting to see who, if anyone, emerges. Two redshirt seniors in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks should be full strength by training camp after knee surgeries this past season. They’re obviously established players, but I haven’t seen much of Smith (or any of Brooks) this spring, so they have some questions to answer about how they can play post-recovery. And they also have to contend with redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim, who filled in for both of them and then some last year. Between those three and sophomore Bryce Williams, the Gophers return more than 6,500 total rushing yards and more than 50 touchdowns. It’s a pretty good spot to be in, unless you’re Fleck and have to decide who of those gets the most reps.
How does the offensive line compare to the 2018 group?
To steal a Fleckism, the offensive line has “experienced youth.” That’s kind of an oxymoron, I know, but it does make some sense. In the bowl game last year, the Gophers started three freshman O-linemen, and it was in general a carousel of players rotating in and out most of the season. This year, there’s more comfort and chemistry. What this line could be was a little hard to predict based on the spring game, which mixed up all the ones, twos and threes on two lines that allowed seven sacks. And positionally, a lot of players are still figuring out what suits them best. But one thing is for certain: Daniel Faalele at right tackle is a gamechanger. He was a solid presence last year, and the 6-9, 400-pound sophomore even scored a touchdown as a makeshift running back in the spring game.
What do you think the distribution will be to the WR/TE's?
The receivers for this upcoming season are so good, it’s a little crazy. Tyler Johnson is the leader and proven standout. He stayed for his final year instead of going to the draft, and I think he’ll make the most of it to improve his speed and NFL stock just that much more. Sophomore Rashod Bateman had an MVP-worthy spring game, and Fleck said the sophomore gained 12 pounds of muscle this offseason. Redshirt sophomore Chris Autman-Bell has put together maybe the best spring of all the wideouts, according to Fleck. And redshirt sophomore Demetrius Douglas has impressed playing every receiver position and transitioning with ease. As for tight ends, redshirt freshman Brevyn Spann-Ford scored two touchdowns in the spring game and looked pretty good. Redshirt junior Ko Kieft and redshirt sophomore Jake Paulson make for a lot of options at TE, too.
For our dynasty owners, who are some young players that stand out as future breakout performers?
That’s pretty tough to say from one spring game and 14 early enrollees to evaluate, haha. Also, this entire team is still heavily underclassmen, so it’s hard to decipher what qualifies as old or young anymore. Freshman quarterback Jacob Clark threw the longest ball of the spring game at 62 yards. He’s certainly got some future potential. Sophomore Thomas Rush seemed to really impress Fleck in the spring game with his 71-yard pick six and could be up for a breakout season at Sam linebacker. Plus some names already listed above.