Gophers digging out of hole


Iowa tight end George Kittle is tackled by Minnesota linebackers Jonathan Celestin and Cody Poock in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015. The Hawkeyes defeated the Golden Gophers, 40-35 to stay perfect on the season. (The Daily Iowan/Rachael Westergard)

By Jordan Hansen

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Part 2 of The Daily Iowan’s early summer look at the Big Ten.

Remember Tuesday when we talked about the whirlwind that was Illinois?

Let’s use another weather movie analogy thing.

The Minnesota athletics program is the Andrea Gail cresting on top of a wave in The Perfect Storm. Still held together, but the pieces are flying off and the ship could still crash into a thousand pieces, lost in the bottomless ocean.

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By keeping Tracey Claeys, the Gophers looked inward to help repair the blistering damage that continues to rock the university. After Jerry Kill left the university to move to an administration position at Kansas State, the team has been in flux.

To Claeys’ credit, he was quick to fire several of the longtime assistants Kill had kept around, with the big move being the hiring of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Jay Johnson to run the offense and quarterbacks. Minnesota’s tempo, which has usually been high, could be super-fast under Johnson’s reign.

In 2013, the Rajun’ Cajuns set school records in both first downs and total plays ran. And guess who Johnson will get to set up his offense with?

The much-maligned Mitch Leidner.

A season ago, Leidner did have 11 interceptions. He also had 14 passing and 8 rushing touchdowns on a team that had its fair share of offensive issues at certain points throughout the season.

But to call it a bad team overall would be doing a disservice. Four of Minnesota’s seven losses were in fairly close games to Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, and TCU — all 10-win or more teams.

That’s no small task. While football teams aren’t in the business of accepting close loses to good teams, Minnesota can’t be too upset by how it performed in its biggest games.

It would also be a disservice to the Gophers to not mention their bowl win over Central Michigan. It was a tangible bit of improvement at the end of the season, which was enough for Claeys to keep his job.

Johnson’s offense could be the key to another step forward for Minnesota this season — if Leidner can get running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, as well as returning wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, involved in the offense, good things will happen.

Smith and Brooks are young, but there’s plenty of promise if last year’s production can be increased. The duo, both sophomores this year, combined for 1,379 yards and 9 touchdowns.

While they weren’t as effective in the passing game (combined 33 catches, 291 yards, no touchdowns), the groundwork is there for them to have some success in the area this season.

If the coaching staff really is serious about going faster, having multiuse running backs could be something they build around. Wolitarsky shouldn’t be counted out, either.

He was Minnesota’s second leading receiver, and while his numbers are not the most obscene (39 catches, 524 yards, 3 touchdowns), it’s something to work with.

Defensively, there are holes in both the secondary and front seven, because Minnesota lost quite a bit to graduation and the draft. Losing corners Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray will both hurt and could be places other teams decide to attack.

Overall, the Gophers are at an interesting point. They’ve certainly been competitive over the past few seasons, but Kill is now gone, and the winds have shifted directions.

The only question is this — will Minnesota right the ship or will the program sink into the dark depths near the bottom of the conference.

Follow @JordyHansen for Iowa and Big Ten football news, updates, and analysis.

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