Spring opponent review: Minnesota
With spring practices now wrapped up around the country, HuskerOnline.com will take a look at where each of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2019 currently stands coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer.
Today we look at the Minnesota Golden Gophers, as P.J. Fleck's squad ended the season on a high note with wins over Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech in their bowl game.
HuskerOnline caught up TheGopherReport.com's Connor Stevens to get his thoughts on Minnesota coming out of the spring.
Things are at a high point for Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, as the Gophers are coming off a finish where they won three of their final four games last season over Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech. This coming after they lost four Big Ten games in a row to start out conference play a year ago.
They played a lot of young players in 2018, and that should pay off big going forward. The Gophers are arguably the sleeper pick to win the West in 2019, and they have a very favorable crossover draw with Rutgers, Maryland and Penn State.
They have a few questions to answer still on the offensive line and on the defense, but this is very much a team that thinks they can win the West.
Minnesota brings back nine starters on offense, seven on defense, but they have to replace all of their specialists in 2019.
All three of their top receivers return in All-Big Ten performer Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell. Both of their top quarterbacks are back in Tanner Morgan and Zack Annextad, with Annexstad having a slight edge at this point because of his throwing ability. Than they return 1,000 yard back Mohamed Ibrahim at running back, and sixth-year senior Rodney Smith and fifth-year senior Shannon Brooks are also back. Brooks has battled multiple knee injuries in the last two seasons, as his Smith. Brooks probably wouldn't return until later in the year though with his injury situation. They also bring back Bryce Williams, who rushed for over 500 yards as a freshman.
Fleck made a defensive coordinator change in the middle of last season, and that unit got a lot better after that. They bring back two starters on the defensive line, two at linebacker and three in the secondary.
Safety depth and the durability of Antoine Winfield is a big question, who's only played six to seven games the last two seasons. On the defensive line, Micah Dew-Treadway transferred in from Notre Dame this spring and steps into a starting role. The overall production of this group needs to improve though.
Offensive star: WR Tyler Johnson
Minnesota's Tyler Johnson is the top returning receiver in the Big Ten, after being named first-team All-Conference a year ago over former Husker Stanley Morgan. Johnson opted to come back for his senior season after catching 78 passes for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns. He gave just about everyone problems a year ago, and with all the other top Gopher receivers coming back, look for another 1,000+ yard season out of Johnson in 2019.
Spring surprise: Mike Brown-Stephens
Look for the shifty freshman slot receiver Mike Brown-Stephens to be a player to pop up that isn't on anyone's radar right now. He has a great feel for the game and knows how to get open.
Defensive star: DE Carter Coughlin
A year ago Carter Coughlin led Minnesota with 9.5 sacks, and once again he'll be the star up front for this Gopher defense. They have some questions still at defensive tackle, but Coughlin gives them a legitimate third-down pass rusher off the edge.
Biggest question: Left tackle
The offensive line brings back multiple starters, but left tackle is still a big one. Minnesota is hoping junior college transfer Jason Dickson can take over the left tackle job, and if not him, junior Sam Schlueter, who logged some starts last season could be the guy.
If neither can step up, look for the Gophers to move Blaise Andries from left guard to left tackle, and Conner Olson from center to left guard. They made a similar move in the bowl game. If they went that route, John Michael Schmitz would be the guy who could step up at center.
Early outlook on Nebraska vs. Minnesota
Stevens: "I think a lot has changed for both teams since that game in Lincoln a year ago. The progression you saw with Nebraska throughout the year, and how they got better after their start, and they showed it the week before against Northwestern, but then got a win the following week against Minnesota.
The turnaround for Minnesota last year came a little bit after that when they lost to Illinois and fired their defensive coordinator. I think things are going to change for both teams in terms of confidence level, in terms of where they are as a football program and looking forward.
"We were talking about that game not too long ago, and I think that game has all the potential for a ranked, night game at TCF Bank Stadium. It could be two undefeated teams with how the schedules set up."
Overall 2019 win-loss expectations
Stevens: On a game-by-game basis for Minnesota you don't look at any one game and think there's no reason why Minnesota can't win this game. With every team fighting for the West title this year but Illinois, you aren't going to go 12-0 with how competitive the West is. I think that 8 to 10 win mark is something you should keep an eye on. Now there are some things like injuries at key positions that could move below that mark, but I would be pretty surprised to see anything less than 7 to 9 wins this season."