Gophers football returns familiar faces in 2020

The Gophers’ football team returns much of its roster from its successful 2019 campaign, but head coach P.J. Fleck understands that new faces may need to step up at a moment’s notice.

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Liam Armstrong

Wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell raises his arms in celebration of a touchdown at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 9. The Gophers defeated Penn State 31-26 to bring their record to 9-0, a first since 1904.

Brendan O'Brien, Sports Reporter

“Next man up” is a cliché mentality for many football teams to adopt over the course of a season when players get injured.

But Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck said Tuesday that this could be more important than ever in a season with COVID-19. Fleck acknowledged that any player who’s low on the depth chart could be thrust into a starting role at any time given the circumstances.

With that in mind, here is what the Gophers offense is projected to look like when the team kicks off against Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium on Oct. 24.

Quarterback

Tanner Morgan will be playing his second full season as the starter under center, the first Gophers quarterback to start consecutive seasons since Mitch Leidner from 2014-16. The redshirt junior is coming off a record-setting 2019 season in which he set several single season records at Minnesota, including passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage.

Morgan and the other Gophers’ quarterbacks used the extended offseason to focus on details specific to the position, like recognizing defensive fronts and coverages as well as improving footwork. If he takes another step forward, Morgan and the Gophers could be in for another explosive season on offense.

Redshirt sophomore Zack Annexstad projects to be the backup while redshirt senior Seth Green adds a unique element to the Gophers offense as the goalline and short-yardage wildcat quarterback.

Running Backs

A running game that gained yardage and controlled the clock was a key component to the Gophers’ success in 2019. Minnesota rotated between Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Mohamed Ibrahim throughout the season to form a powerful three-headed backfield. Losing Smith and Brooks to graduation, Ibrahim returns as the leader in the running back room and is already 24th on Minnesota’s rushing list with 1,764 career rushing yards after playing in 21 games.

Plenty of carries are up for grabs now following the departure of Smith and Brooks. Redshirt sophomore Bryce Williams appears to be a prime candidate to get part of the workload after playing a significant role in 2018. Williams played in all 13 games two seasons ago, running the ball 117 times for 502 yards and four touchdowns. He only played in two games before being redshirted last season.

If the Gophers are to use the same approach as previous seasons, the team will rely on someone with little or no game experience in college to fill that third spot in the backfield rotation. The player could come from a trio of redshirt freshmen in Cam Wiley, Treyson Potts or Jason Williamson.

Wide Receivers

Of course, one of the biggest questions remaining for the Gophers is whether junior Rashod Bateman will be able to return to play. Shortly after the Big Ten announced the conference would be starting in October, Bateman decided he wanted to return to the Gophers, after originally deciding to forgo the season due to health concerns over COVID-19. If Bateman is able to suit up for the maroon and gold, the 2019 Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year will be a dynamic option for Morgan on the outside.

With the departure of Tyler Johnson and with or without Bateman, redshirt juniors Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas are two receivers poised for more work this season. Autman-Bell caught 28 passes in each of the last two seasons and contributed 371 yards with five touchdowns last season. Douglas has spent some time on the field as a receiver and made his mark as a return specialist. The Gophers have some youth at the position as well, with five redshirt freshmen.

Offensive Line

An integral role in Minnesota’s rushing attack and protecting Morgan, the Gophers should be stout again up front with all five primary starters returning. Continuity at the line of scrimmage could be key for the Gophers to continue to have offensive success in a shortened season as the running backs and linemen are all familiar with each other and the scheme.

Junior right tackle Daniel Faalele will continue to be a staple in the run game with redshirt senior Sam Schlueter protecting the left side at tackle. Redshirt senior Conner Olson and redshirt junior Blaise Andries both are able to move around with Olson playing nine games at center and three at left guard while Andries played 10 at left guard, two at right tackle and one at left tackle.

Redshirt sophomore Curtis Dunlap Jr. entered the transfer portal this offseason but quickly returned to the Gophers and will continue to play right guard. Redshirt juniors John Michael Schmitz and Axel Ruschmeyer are two reserves Morgan mentioned as players who will also be important to the offensive line.

Tight Ends

An extension of the offensive line for much of last season, Minnesota returns most of its primary contributors at this position. Redshirt junior Jake Paulson returns after missing four games to injury in 2019. Redshirt seniors Bryce Witham and Ko Kieft, along with redshirt sophomore Brevyn Spann-Ford, look to play significant snaps and add depth at tight end.