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Around the B1G West: Minnesota

The 2019 season for Minnesota was their best in decades, led by one of the nation’s best passing games and a consistent defense. The Gophers defeated then-No. 4 Penn State in front of a raucous College GameDay crowd and beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Minnesota’s No. 10 AP finish was their best since 1962.

What’s the outlook for 2020? With key pieces returning, will 2020 finally be the year Minnesota wins the Big Ten West? The Gopher Report publisher Matt Jessen-Howard gives a look at the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Minnesota finished 2019 as No. 10 in the AP and Coaches polls, No. 13 in SP+, and No. 15 in Massey Composite.
Minnesota finished 2019 as No. 10 in the AP and Coaches polls, No. 13 in SP+, and No. 15 in Massey Composite. (AP)

Three prominent storylines

Prolific offense expected in 2020

Minnesota finished with the No. 7 SP+ offense in 2019, led by a passing game that was a difference-maker all season. Quarterback Tanner Morgan was named All-Big Ten Second Team and had the three best Gopher receivers of the decade to throw to in Tyler Johnson (First Team), Rashod Bateman (First Team), and Chris Autman-Bell. Morgan, Bateman, Autman-Bell, all tight ends, and all starting offensive lineman return for 2020. Mo Ibrahim is expected to start at running back, the rising junior rushed for 1160 yards in 2018 but was the No. 2 back in 2019 behind Rodney Smith.

With nine starters returning, seven of whom made an All-Big Ten team in 2019, expectations are high for the offense in 2019. Co-offensive coordinators Mike Sanford and Matt Simon have big shoes to fill after Kirk Ciarrocca left for Penn State.

Defense is a question mark given star departures

Minnesota finished with the No. 26 SP+ defense last season. The unit’s biggest stars -- safety Antoine Winfield Jr., rush end Carter Coughlin, and linebacker Kamal Martin -- have all graduated or left for the NFL. Minnesota graduated four seniors on defense, as well: defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere, defensive tackle Sam Renner, linebacker Thomas Barber, and nickel Chris Williamson.

Minnesota’s defensive line and cornerbacks should be strong in 2020, but questions exist for each position group: defensive line depth is unproven, as will be Winfield’s replacement, and Martin and Barber’s replacements were shaky in 2019.

Improvement needed from special teams

Minnesota’s special teams struggled in 2019. SP+ ranks the Gophers at No. 83 in this category, but for fans, sometimes, it felt worse, especially in kick/punt coverage. Against Auburn, after giving up an early kickoff return touchdown, the Gophers resorted to squib kickoffs the rest of the game. Special teams coordinator Rob Wenger returns, as do kicker Michael Lantz and return man Demetrius Douglas. Gopher fans hope Wenger can turn around what was at times a shaky unit last season.

Three biggest departures

Kirk Ciarrocca, offensive coordinator

Kirk Ciarrocca, a Pennsylvania native, left to take the same role at Penn State. Just like he did at Western Michigan, Ciarrocca improved Minnesota’s offense year-by-year and has a strong reputation for developing quarterbacks. His offense ran lots of inside zone, outside zone, RPOs, and slants. Although the Gophers were one of the best teams nationally passing the ball last year, Ciarrocca wanted to maintain a run-first identity.

Mike Sanford, former offensive coordinator at Boise State, Notre Dame, and Utah State, joins the staff and will be co-OC with former wide receivers coach Matt Simon, who impressed as Ciarrocca’s replacement in the Outback Bowl.

Antoine Winfield Jr., safety

Winfield was Minnesota’s best defensive player in a long time and a truly dominant safety in 2019. Winfield finished the season with seven interceptions and less than two passes thrown to his coverage per game.

Replacing him will likely be Tyler Nubin, who fared well in limited playing time last year as a true freshman but nevertheless has enormous shoes to fill. Alongside Nubin at the other safety spot will be Jordan Howden, a likely All-Big Ten player in 2020 who will be in his third year starting.

Tyler Johnson, wide receiver

PJ Fleck said after the Outback Bowl that he thinks Johnson is the best receiver in program history. Johnson is the program leader in career receiving yards and career receiving touchdowns and was All-Big Ten First Team the past two seasons.

Johnson is a big loss, no doubt. Luckily for the Gophers, Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year Rashod Bateman returns, as does Chris Autman-Bell, who also has NFL potential.

Three key returners

Wide receiver Rashod Bateman was the Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year in 2019 and an All-American candidate in 2020.
Wide receiver Rashod Bateman was the Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year in 2019 and an All-American candidate in 2020. (USA Today/Jesse Johnson)

Tanner Morgan, quarterback

Morgan started the second half of the 2018 season with fine but less-than-outstanding results. In 2019, Morgan was one of the most efficient passers in the country and led several fourth quarter comebacks. He finished the season completing 66% of his passes for 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. Morgan will be aided in 2020 by a talented group of wide receivers and all starters returning at tight end and offensive line.

Rashod Bateman, wide receiver

Bateman edged out Tyler Johnson to win Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year last year, and this year will face the challenge of duplicating his production with more of the defense’s attention. In 2019, he caught 60 passes for 1219 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Mo Ibrahim, running back

Ibrahim was a pleasant surprise for the Gophers in 2018 -- with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks hurt, he rushed for over 1200 yards and 5.7 yards per carry. In 2019, Ibrahim split carries with Smith and Brooks, who have now both graduated. He’s a compact, bowling ball-type running back who lacks straight-line speed but has superb vision and patience.

Three big additions

MIke Sanford Jr. was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame from 2015-2016.
MIke Sanford Jr. was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame from 2015-2016. (USA Today Sports)

Mike Sanford, co-offensive coordinator

Sanford comes to Minnesota after previous stops at Utah State (offensive coordinator), Western Kentucky (head coach), Notre Dame (offensive coordinator), and Boise State (offensive coordinator). He has a great reputation for developing quarterbacks, but his results as a playcaller and OC have been up-and-down. Matt Simon, who has coached wide receivers under Fleck, will co-coordinate with Sanford. Sanford will surely bring some of his own playbook, but the offense will likely look similar to 2019: QB in shotgun, lots of RPOs, and a balanced approach.

Chad Wilt, defensive line coach

Wilt takes over for Jim Panagos, who left for the same role at Rutgers, where he previously coached in Schiano’s first tenure there. Wilt is an experienced defensive line coach, having coached the group previously at Virginia, Maryland, and most recently, Cincinnati. Wilt takes over a group that lost two All-Big Ten players in rush end Carter Coughlin and defensive tackle Sam Renner and another starter in defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere. Minnesota’s starters in 2020 should be solid -- starting defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway returns, fellow DT Keonte Schad flashed a lot of potential in 2019, and defensive ends Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe were both top-quartile Power 5 defensive ends last season. However, depth is a concern.

Ky Thomas, running back

Thomas comes to Minnesota after setting Kansas large-school rushing records last season. Thomas, rated a high three-star, has a college-ready body and may be Minnesota’s most elusive back from day one. PJ Fleck likes to have “a pair and a spare” at running back. Mo Ibrahim is likely to be Minnesota’s primary back, but Thomas will be in the hunt for carries this fall alongside Bryce Williams, Cam Wiley, Treyson Potts, and Jason Williamson.

Expectations for 2020

In 2019, Minnesota had their best season since the 1960s and returns ten players that have either been All-Big Ten or All-Big Ten Honorable Mention. Thus, expectations and hope are as high as ever in Minneapolis.

At a minimum, fans hope the Gophers are a contender for the Big Ten West title. Winning the program’s first West title and another AP Top 10 finish would surely constitute another successful season.