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Minnesota Gophers Spring Preview 2015: Can Kill’s team continue to contend?

Raise your hand if you thought the Badgers vs. Gophers would be for the Big Ten West division title last season? Sure, you probably thought Wisconsin would have that opportunity on the line, but few thought the Gophers were also going to be the main contender to the Badgers’ run to the West division title.

That’s exactly what happened, as the bitter rivals clashed in Madison in the most-played rivalry in FBS football.

However, one couldn’t help but notice just how far apart the two rivals still were after Wisconsin’s 34-24 win. Wisconsin had nearly 200 more yards, managed to pass for over 200 yards (a feat it did just three other times) and only got 95 yards passing themselves.

Previous Previews: Illinois | Michigan | Northwestern | Maryland

It’s year five of the Jerry Kill era in Minneapolis, and there’s little question this program has gone in the right direction. After back-to-back 8-5 finishes, there is also plenty of room for this program to grow if it wants to be a real championship contender.

Usually that type of change comes in the form of a breakthrough spring performance or two. Let’s see if Minnesota has that in them in 2015 or not.

 

Spring Football Start Date: March 3

Spring Football Game Date: April 11

Key Returning Players: Mitch Leidner, QB; KJ Maye, WR; Theiren Cockran, DE; Josh Campion, LT; Eric Murray, CB

Key Losses: David Cobb, RB; Maxx Williams, TE; Zac Epping, LG; Tommy Olson, C; Cedric Thompson, S

 

Gophers Spring To-Do List:

– Find a Go-To Receiving Threat: With redshirt sophomore Maxx Williams bolting after his breakout season in 2014, the Gophers are left with a major hole in a passing game that wasn’t working well to begin with. Williams was the leading receiver last season, hauling in 36 passes for 569 yards and a team-best eight touchdowns.

There is some intriguing talent at wide receiver, especially with K.J. Maye. He’s the one who has displayed the most home run hitting ability, averaging 18.6 yards per game. It’s just too bad he was only on the receiving end of 16 passes last season.

If Minnesota wants to be a true contender next season, finding a passing game that teams will have to at least respect from time to time will be key. That’s especially true given the new look the run game will have without single-season rushing record holder David Cobb gone.

Not only would be good for Maye to continue to develop, but it would be nice to see names like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones take steps forward along with quarterback Mitch Leidner.

– Next Man Up Has to Work on Offensive Line: After the 2013 season people wondered if Minnesota’s defense would be up to the task without Ra’Shede Hageman. It proved to be just fine in 2014.

Now, the opposite line faces a huge challenge with the loss of arguably two of the best lineman (RG Zac Epping and C Tommy Olson) of the Jerry Kill era gone.

Those two have been mainstays along the offensive line since Jerry Kill came on board, and replacing their leadership and production will be a major test this spring. Luckily, all three of the other starters will be upperclassmen in 2015 and that should help the transition up the middle of the line.

Still, the replacements should be solid additions to the line. Potential center or right guard Jon Christenson has started twice in his career (once at center and this past season at guard against Missouri).

Spring will be about developing the chemistry needed for this group to continue to be one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten.

– Find the right rotation at Running Back: As we mentioned before, there is no David Cobb for the Gophers offense to lean on in 2015 and that should be a scary proposition. Not only should it be scary because he ran for a school-record 1,626 yards, but because his 314 attempts were 77 more attempts than Leidner had passing.

It’s also more than double Leidner, who was second on the team in rushing attempts. Clearly there is an opportunity out there for someone to grab, but the question is just who that someone will be.

We know it won’t be led backup Donnell Kirkwood either, since he is gone and graduated. That leaves sophomore Berkley Edwards and senior Rodrick Williams to be potential replacements…unless you look deeper on the roster.

jeffjonesSpring may be all about one name and one name only — redshirt freshman Jeff Jones. He is easily the most highly touted recruit of the Jerry Kill era and many see him as the clear heir apparent at the running back position.

Jones won’t just be handed the job though, and if he doesn’t bust out in spring ball the Gophers have the depth to make a running back-by-committee situation more than work.

– Show defensive line depth: With two defensive linemen gone to graduation, the Gophers are going to get a severe test in their ability to bring along young players quickly. Last season the Gophers got a good amount of production from two players — end Theirian Cockran and tackle Cameron Botticelli. Both ended up as unanimous honorable mention All-Big Ten picks.

One half of that group is gone, as Botticelli graduated, and that means Cockran needs to lead the pass rush on his own as the Gophers look to build something good on the other side with Michael Amaefula gone as well.

The good news is defensive tackle appears pretty stocked with Scott Ekpe coming back from a torn ACL and Steve Richardson starting 12 games in his freshman campaign. Richardson has star written all over him, but there are still questions about the rotation on the defensive line that will need to be answered.

Will someone be able to be a truly consistent edge rusher opposite Cockran? Can this group be healthy enough in the spring to develop some true depth heading in to the season?

If Minnesota wants to take the next step it needs to have a better overall athletic presence up front, and spring will tell us a lot about just where this group stands in 2015.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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