MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football team’s 2022 season starts on Thursday, Sept. 1, against Jerry Kill and New Mexico State at Huntington Bank Stadium.
The road to get there is already underway, as the Gophers have been in winter conditioning for weeks. The spring season officially starts Tuesday with practice, and Minnesota could be on the verge of a breakout year as PJ Fleck enters his sixth season with the Gophers.
They’re coming off a 9-4 season in 2021, capped off by beating Wisconsin and then West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. Here are five storylines as the Gophers enter spring practice.
WHICH TANNER MORGAN WILL WE GET IN 2022?
Tanner Morgan is back for his sixth and final season with Minnesota, and one of the big questions entering the 2022 season is which quarterback will we get? Morgan had a historic season in 2019, leading the Gophers to a win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. The Gophers have gone a combined 12-8 the last two seasons, and over that stretch, Morgan has 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Kirk Ciarrocca, his offensive coordinator during the historic 2019 run, is back. We’ll see if that translates into the Gophers offense putting up big numbers, and contending for the Big Ten West.
WHO IS HEALTHY AMONG THE RUNNING BACKS?
One of the biggest question marks entering spring practice is the health of the running back room. Mo Ibrahim suffered an Achilles injury in the 2021 opener against Ohio State. Trey Potts suffered an undisclosed, season-ending injury at Purdue that required hospitalization. Bryce Williams suffered a season-ending leg injury at Northwestern. The only two running backs to be healthy all season were Bucky Irving and Ky Thomas, and Thomas has since left the program.
Who is healthy among Ibrahim, Williams and Potts? And who will actually get practice reps among the three?
WHO RETURNS ON THE DEFENSIVE LINE?
Boye Mafe, Esezi Otomewo, Nyles Pinckney, Micah Dew-Treadway, MJ Anderson and Rashad Cheney are the biggest names to have left in the offseason. The returning anchors for the defensive line? Trill Carter and Thomas Rush. Carter made 20 tackles, five tackles for loss and had a sack in 12 games last season. Rush had 31 tackles and played in all 13 games last season. The Gophers have added Darnell Jefferies and Lorenza Surgers from the transfer portal, and will need Gage Keys and Jah Joyner among others to step up.
WHO STEPS UP AT LINEBACKER?
PJ Fleck struck gold in the transfer portal last year with Jack Gibbens at linebacker. Gibbens led the defense with 92 tackles, starting every game. So who steps up this year for Joe Rossi? It starts with Mariano Sori-Marin and Braelin Oliver. Sori-Marin was second behind Gibbens on the defense in tackles with 85, including five for a loss. In his return from knee surgery, Oliver played all 13 games, finishing with 24 tackles and a forced fumble. After that, it’s up to Josh Aune, Donald Willis and Cody Lindenberg among others to fill in the gaps.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT AT THE APRIL 30 SPRING GAME?
First and foremost, let’s hope for dry and warm weather at Huntington Bank Stadium. As always, Fleck and the Gophers are encouraging fans coming to bring a decorated oar for the tunnel, and donate to their diaper drive for families in need. As for the football, Fleck typically picks team captains to draft the two teams, fantasy football-style. Expect many names you haven’t heard a lot from to get a majority of the snaps.
Some players won’t be physically ready, others can’t risk re-injury with four months before the season-opener. New faces will emerge, there will be trick plays and the winner will hoist Goldy’s Cup.