MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football team opens its 2021 season one week from today, hosting Ohio State under the lights at Huntington Bank Stadium.
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The Gophers are coming off a 3-4 season in 2020, complicated by injuries and COVID-19 issues. There’s not a better measuring stick for P.J. Fleck and his program than starting against a program that was one win away from a College Football Playoff national title last year. Fleck is 25-19 in four seasons at Minnesota, including 15-19 in Big Ten play.
Fans will be back at full capacity at Huntington Bank Stadium in 2021. Here’s a look at some of the biggest questions facing the Gophers heading into the season.
CAN TANNER MORGAN BOUNCE BACK IN 2021?
The Gophers need the Tanner Morgan that led them to an 11-2 record in 2019. He’s 18-8 as a starter, and in seven games last year, threw for 1,374 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. In 2019, he had more than 3,200 yards and 30 touchdowns. He’s had time to develop chemistry with offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr., and he’ll get a great test early against the Buckeyes.
WHAT WILL THE OFFENSIVE LINE LOOK LIKE?
Minnesota’s offensive line should be one of the most experienced in not only the Big Ten, but the entire country. Every starter is back, and the Gophers return Daniel Fa’alele from a 2020 opt-out, and Curtis Dunlap Jr. from injury. The starting unit should include Blaise Andries, Sam Schlueter, Conner Olson, John Michael Schmitz and Fa’alele. They’ll also rotate Dunlap, Nathan Boe, Axel Ruschmeyer, Austin Beier, Aireontae Ersery and JJ Guedet.
WHO STEPS UP AT WIDE RECEIVER?
Chris Autman-Bell is the obvious choice, but his status for Ohio State is up in the air after suffering a leg injury during fall camp. After scoring five touchdowns in 2019, Autman-Bell had 430 receiving yards and one touchdown last season. He’ll get plenty of attention, which leaves opportunities for Daniel Jackson, Dylan Wright, Clay Geary, Brady Boyd, Michael Brown-Stephens and others. One other name to watch? Brevyn Spann-Ford, who has been touted for two years as the Gophers look to get their tight ends more involved in the offense.
They’ve all had their moments in camp, but need to be more consistent when the season starts.
WHAT DOES THE SPECIALISTS GROUP LOOK LIKE?
Gophers’ special teams has been an issue in recent years, but it appears the group has found some stability for 2021. The kicking job is Matthew Trickett’s to lose, while Brock Walker could fill in on long field goals. Mark Crawford enters his second year at punter, and Cam Wiley is likely to be the kick/punt returner.
WHO WILL STAND OUT ON THE DEFENSIVE LINE?
The Gophers struggled to pressure the quarterback last year, and the hope is that will change after adding talent to the defensive line. Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo will take the lead at defensive end, while Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney will be a standout at defensive tackle. They’ll get help from Micah Dew-Treadway, D’Angelo Carter and others.
HOW DOES THE SECONDARY LOOK?
Minnesota’s secondary features a mix of veterans and young players. It’ll be led by seniors Coney Durr and Terrell Smith, who has had as good of a fall camp as anyone on the defense. They’ll also look for Jordan Howden, Tyler Nubin and Justus Harris to have breakout seasons.
We’ll find out a lot more where the team is at when the Gophers and the Buckeyes take the field next Thursday night at Huntington Bank Stadium.