The Twin Cities should be excited about the 2015 Minnesota Golden Gophers‘ football season. Head coach Jerry Kill has brought a near dead-in-the-water program to almost Big Ten prominence in his past four years. Last season, the team was one game away from playing in the conference championship game, and it was the first time it had played in a New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962. The Gophers have lost a few important skill position players, but return enough players from last season to be sneaky good this year.
The bad news for the offense is the loss of running back David Cobb and All-American tight end Maxx Williams. And K.J. Maye is the one returning receiver that had a touchdown reception last season. That is where the veteran leadership of quarterback Mitch Leidner comes into play. Leidner made a smattering of big plays last season, throwing 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Williams caught eight of those touchdown passes, so Maye will be the primary receiver in the offense this fall. At the running back position, the Gophers have plenty of depth, but lack the experience. Senior Roderick Williams is slated to be the starter. He has lost 20 pounds from last season, has decent quickness and a low center of gravity. He’ll get a bulk of the carries this season, with sophomore Berkley Edwards and freshman Rodney Smith supplementing. The receiver position is nearly depleted, but the coaching staff is high on the young talent on the roster. Junior Drew Wolitarsky will be the second receiver where Isaac Fruechte was last season. The young receiver to watch will be Jeff Jones. He came to Minnesota as a running back, but converted to receiver in the spring. He has potential to be a dangerous slot receiver once he gets in space. Melvin Holland could also see playing time at receiver. He has good speed and can be a threat on the edge.
While the offense is getting its bearings, the defense will keep the Gophers close in any contest. Damien Wilson and Cedric Thompson were the two leading tacklers last season and are both gone. But the returning starters for the Gophers will fill the void with little to no problem. The front seven will be led by linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. He had 75 tackles as a junior last season and returned an interception for a touchdown as well. The defensive line returns Theiren Cockran and Hendrick Ekpe. Together they have some experience and are poised to have big seasons. Hendrick’s brother Scott Ekpe is back from an ACL injury as well. In the spring game, he showed some agility in getting to the perimeter whenever the opposing quarterback scrambled out of the pocket.
Forget about passing on Minnesota — their secondary is loaded. Led by senior Thorpe candidate Briean Boddy-Calhoun, the Gophers will have one of the best secondaries in the Big Ten. Damarius Travis, Jalen Myrick, Antonio Johnson and Eric Murray all return this season, and all of them had at least one interception last year. Boddy-Calhoun had five to lead the way. Look for this group of studs to wreak havoc on any receiving corps this fall.
Minnesota has a tough opener when TCU comes to Minneapolis. The Gophers will be looking to avenge their loss from last season, so it’ll be a fun game to watch. Following that, they play at Colorado State, then return to Target Field to face back-to-back MAC opponents Kent State and Ohio. The Gophers open conference play with two straight road games at Northwestern and Purdue. Their toughest road game, like several other Big Ten team’s, is at Ohio State. It hosts Wisconsin for the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe to finish off the regular season.
Minnesota has constantly been on the rise under Kill, but I see them plateauing this season, duplicating last year’s 8-4 overall record and 5-3 conference record, finishing third in the Big Ten West.
Brooks Hooley is a Junior Big Ten Football writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @brookshooley.