Media days: 10 big questions

by Jack Satzinger

Big Ten Football Media Days kick off tomorrow morning in Chicago. All 10  14 teams from the conference will be represented by three players and their respective head coach. Throughout the two-day event, each team's representatives will be asked non-stop about the upcoming season. Going off that theme, here are 10 big questions I have as the Gophers try to improve on a breakthrough 8-5 season in the newly-expanded conference. 

1. Is Mitch Leidner the guy at quarterback? 

Ask any Gophers player or coach and they'll all say the same thing — "yes." Shortly after Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers in January, Leidner facilitated offseason workouts and took the reins as Minnesota's team leader. During spring practice he got physical with defensive linemen, became a film room junkie and started reading a quarterback development book under the instruction of coach Jim Zebrowski. If there's one intangible Leidner appears to have, it's dedication. But he also only threw three touchdowns last season — less than Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller racked up in one game against Wisconsin. Whether or not Leidner's offseason work will pay off remains to be seen. 

2. How good can David Cobb be if he plays a full season? 

This time last year, Cobb was third on the Gophers' depth chart at running back. When then-starter Donnell Kirkwood went down with an ankle injury in the season-opener against UNLV, Cobb went in and streaked down the left sideline for 60 yards. The Killeen, Texas, native didn't become the Gophers' go-to running back until week four against San Jose State, when he amassed 125 yards and two touchdowns off of 25 carries. From there, Cobb racked up five more 100-plus yard games to finish with 1,202 rushing yards on the season. Cobb finished sixth in the Big Ten in rushing and projects to get many more touches this season — a scary proposition for opposing defenses. Don't be surprised if he gets closer to 1,500 yards this time around. 

3. Can the defensive line really replace Ra'Shede Hageman?

I'm so tired of this question, because it was a focal point of spring practice. But in a conference headlined by impressive running backs — Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, Jeremy Langford and Mark Weisman to name a few — getting a good push up front is critical. The Gophers return mainstay defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli and stud defensive end Theiren Cockran. Botticelli is a solid presence up front and Cockran wreaked havoc on the edge last season, getting around offensive tackles for a team-high 7.5 sacks. But some of those sacks likely came because offensive lines put so much attention on Hageman. 

4. Is Eric Murray an elite cornerback?

As a sophomore, Murray started every game for the Gophers last season. He led the team by far in pass breakups with 10 while consistently facing the opposition's best receiver. And in spring practice, Murray made some of the Gophers' young receivers look foolish. As Murray ages, he is becoming a more physical presence on the outside. NFL scouts seem to think he can be a lockdown corner in college and a solid player at the next level. 

5. Will Minnesota's receivers produce?

Murray certainly is a talented corner, but the receivers he occassionally beat up on in spring ball are still learning. The top Gophers wide receiver last season was Derrick Engel with just 401 yards. Engel tore his ACL in November and is still rehabbing, trying for a shot at the NFL. The top returning receivers are true sophomores Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Both are athletic and showed flashes last season, but need to consistently produce if Minnesota's offense is to take the next step. KJ Maye is another guy to look out for. He missed six games last season due to injury and couldn't find momentum, but was Minnesota's most impressive wideout in spring practice. Of course, there's also Maxx Williams who led the Gophers with 417 receiving yards in 2013. The redshirt sophomore can get airborn in the red zone if roommate Leidner tosses the ball up there. 

6. Who will start at linebacker? 

A few months ago, this wasn't much of a question. Incumbents Damien Wilson and DeVondre Campbell are near locks and incoming junior college transfer Cody Poock projected to slide into the other spot. Then Poock tore his ACL in spring practice, leaving a gaping hole at the third starting spot. Redshirt sophomore Jack Lynn has the length to drop back and be a pest in coverage, but played a total of just three games last season and racked up five tackles. Redshirt sophomore Nick Rallis participated in 10 games in 2013, but the 5-foot, 11-inch, linebacker doesn't have the physical tools Lynn possesses. Take your pick, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. 

7. Is Minnesota's secondary its strongest position group?

After losing senior leader and all-around good guy Brock Vereen to the NFL, the Gophers' defensive back group is as loaded as ever. We already covered Murray and Minnesota also brings back seasoned cornerbacks Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun — both of which fought injury issues last season but now appear to be 100-percent. Wells has also spent time at safety in his career and could be a pest in the nickel this season. On top of that, the Gophers bring back their two starting safeties from last season in leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson. But Johnson returning as a starter in 2014 is by no means a given. Damarius Travis, who broke out in spring practice, is gunning for the starting spot

8. Will Berkley Edwards single-handedly transform the Gophers' offense?

At 5-feet, 9-inches, Berkley Edwards is small for a Big Ten running back. But the impact he could have on Minnesota's fortunes this season is pretty damn big. If Leidner and his young receivers can't connect and spread the field, Edwards might do it for them. The redshirt freshman accounted for the only touchdown in Minnesota's April spring game, breaking outside for 33 yards. He impressed in spring practice, too, and could provide a home-run threat the Gophers sorely lacked last season. Minnesota ranked second to last in the Big Ten in scoring offense last season, besting only Purdue — which won a single game all year. If the Gophers are going to take the next step, their offense needs to become more dynamic and Edwards could be the answer.

9.  Is this the year Minnesota finally beats Wisconsin?

After being dominated by the Badgers in Jerry Kill's first two seasons at Minnesota, the Gophers actually put up a fight last year. Minnesota lost 20-7 but its offense couldn't deliver, failing to register a single point. Minnesota's defense will likely be just about as good as it was last season and the Gophers' offense could take a step forward (see Edwards, Berkley). Wisconsin, meanwhile, could take a step back after losing stud linebacker Chris Borland, reliable receiver Jared Abbrederis and veteran running back James White. Make no mistake, Wisconsin still brings back a talented side and might have the nation's top running back in Melvin Gordon. Playing the Gophers at Camp Randall should be enough for the Badgers to eke out a win, but this is the closest the two sides have been in years. 

10. Will the Big Ten get back to the championship game?

In the BCS' 16-year run, only one Big Ten program made it to the national championship game: Ohio State. The Buckeyes won in 2002 and lost in the title game in 2006 and 2007. If the conference finally gets back to the championship game this season, don't be surprised if Urban Meyer's Buckeyes are the reason. Ohio State brings back Heisman candidate Braxton Miller, a dual-threat quarterback who ran for more than 1,000 yards and passed for over 2,000 despite missing two games to injury. The Buckeyes lost linebacker Ryan Shazier, cornerback Bradley Roby and running back Carlos Hyde to the NFL, but entering the season they're one of the nation's top five teams on paper. 

Michigan State, which won the Rose Bowl with a gutsy January 1 performance, is a dark horse to get to the title game. The Spartans never seem to garner as much attention as their in-state rivals, despite beating the Wolverines five of the last six years — including a 29-6 romp last season. Michigan State lost Darqueze Dennard and other defensive playmakers to the NFL, but bring back Shilique Calhoun, Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond on that side of the ball. Their defense should once again be dominant and the Spartans' offense will be led by veteran quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford. Don't be surprised if you see Michigan State playing in January again this year, perhaps gaining back some of the respect the Big Ten has lost on the national stage of late.