Our friends over at the Daily Gopher were friendly enough to answer a few questions and give us the inside scoop on everything we should know leading up to the season opener versus Minnesota. You can check out our answers here.
Q: Minnesota's leading rusher, Shannon Brooks, was injured a few weeks back. How is his recovery looking? And how confident are you that the running game will continue without a hitch?
A: Not much news to report on Shannon Brooks. He broke a bone in his foot and had a screw inserted about two weeks ago. Based on the timetable of 3-5 weeks for his recovery, I would be shocked if he sees the field against Oregon State. There is no need to rush him back. Optimistically, unless he suffers a setback, I would guess he'll be available for Colorado State after the Gophers' Week 3 bye, but a return on the road against Penn State in Week 5 to open up Big Ten play is more likely for his season debut.
The reason the Gophers won't rush him back is simple: Rodney Smith. As a redshirt freshman last season, Smith started seven games and rushed for 670 yards on 157 carries, with two touchdowns on the year. Once Brooks emerged with a breakout performance against Ohio, the two formed a formidable tandem at running back, although Smith faded down the stretch after getting banged up against Michigan midseason. Smith is not the home run threat that Brooks is, but he is a quick, elusive, and patient runner.
With Brooks out, you'll see Smith split carries with JUCO transfer Kobe McCray, a 6'1'', 235-lb. back who is more of a downhill runner than Brooks or Smith. Word is that the coaches are high on McCrary after a strong fall camp. You might also see a few carries from redshirt freshman James Johanesson, who turned some heads with a terrific performance in the spring game.
Q: Tell us about your senior quarterback Mitch Leidner. He's battled injuries throughout his career, do you think he'll remain healthy this season? Also what kind of offensive balance should Beaver fans expect from Minnesota (Pass vs. Run)?
A: There is a contingent of Gopher fans that will tell you Mitch Leidner is the worst quarterback in the Big Ten and that he needs to be benched in favor of whoever the back-up happens to be. Personally, I love him (although he can be frustrating at times), and I think certain Gopher fans will come to appreciate him more next year when we have an inexperienced underclassman under center.
Leidner had surgery back in December to repair extensive ligament damage in his left foot. According to Leidner, he has been dealing with this foot problem for the last two seasons. You wouldn't know it from watching him in the second half of last season. In his final seven games of the season -- which included games against Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin -- he threw for 1,692 passing yards with eight touchdowns and a 57 percent completion percentage. Not bad for a guy with a bum foot. He is now fully recovered and I expect to see him taking snaps all year, because if anything, he has proven to be tough and durable in his career as a Gopher.
As far as pass vs. run, it's difficult to know for sure with Jay Johnson as the new offensive coordinator, though head coach Tracy Claeys has said there won't be drastic changes from previous years. So I would expect the Gophers to run 60 percent of the time and pass 40 percent of the time, but that is subject to change throughout the game if one is having more success than the other.
Q: Minnesota went 6-7 last season (2-6) in the Big 10. But, this is a very talented Gopher team that I think some Oregon State fans are underrating. Why did Minnesota struggle down the stretch last season? And what are expectations for this season?
A: Injuries were brutal last season, and the schedule was unforgiving with TCU to open the season, Michigan and Wisconsin at home, and road games against Ohio State, Iowa, and Northwestern. Not to mention the fact that head coach Jerry Kill resigned midseason due to health problems. It felt like a nightmare season where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. 24 players in the two-deep combined to miss 119 total games last season due to injury. I've never seen anything like it. And the lines on both side of the ball suffered because of it. At one point against Wisconsin, the Gophers were forced insert a walk-on defensive tackle with no prior game experience. It was not good.
This season, Gopher fans are optimistic with a less grueling schedule, as long as the team can avoid the injuries that plagued them last year. Gone from the schedule are TCU, Michigan, and Ohio State, replaced with the likes of Oregon State, Maryland, and Rutgers. Tracy Claeys has also worked to address the issues on offense, firing longtime offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski. I mentioned Johnson, but Gopher fans are fired up to see what new offensive line coach Bart Miller can do. The offensive line was atrocious last year, and Miller has a phenomenal track record, especially at Wisconsin. We'll see what he can do. There isn't much depth on the offensive line, but the starting five have the potential to be a strong group.
So expectations are reasonably high, but Gopher fans aren't so much confident as they are cautiously optimistic.
Q: Oregon State will (most likely) be starting two newcomers on the offensive line. One at center and the other at left tackle. How is Minnesota's defensive line/front seven? Will they generate a significant pass-rush that could wreak havoc?
A: Defensive line has been the weakness of the Gopher defense the past several years, specifically when rushing the passer. 6'0'', 300-lb. defensive tackle Steven Richardson is a one-man wrecking crew up the middle, but Minnesota hasn't had a strong presence on the edge for quite some time. One to watch is junior defensive end Gaelin Elmore. He has shown flashes of potential the last couple seasons, and I'm hopeful that he is due for a breakout year. Arguably the team's best pass rusher last season was sophomore linebacker Julian Huff. As a freshman, the coaches loved to terrorize opposing quarterbacks using him as a pass rush specialist off the edge on passing downs.
Huff is part of an experienced linebacker corps that will help pick up the slack if the defensive line can't get it done this season. Senior captain Jack Lynn is a standout at outside linebacker. If the Beavers don't account for him, he'll be in the backfield a lot, having notched 11 tackles-for-loss last year. You'll also want to watch out for middle linebacker Cody Poock. No one on the Gopher defense sheds blocks better than Poock, and he is a sure tackler who plays a key role in stopping the run game.
Q: We covered Minnesota's QB/RBs. Who else should should Beaver fans keep an eye on in the opener?
A: Tight end Brandon Lingen is one of Mitch Leidner's favorite targets in the passing game, but I don't know if he'll play. He is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and as of this writing he has not been cleared for contact, so his participation against Oregon State is doubtful. The Gophers will look to replace the sure hands of KJ Maye -- last year's leading receiver -- and the top candidates are senior Drew Wolitarsky, junior Eric Carter, and sophomore Rashad Still. Wolitarsky would seem like the logical choice, but drops have been a problem with him. Still, a 6'5'', 205-lb. wideout, is a red zone threat who was able to leverage his size against undersized corners last year.
You'll also see a lot of Jalen Myrick. The senior cornerback is the fastest player on the team, and he has a nose for the ball. He snagged three interceptions last year, including a pick six against Purdue. He'll also return punts and kicks for the Gophers.
Q: Prediction time! Who ya got?
A: Being a Gopher fan, it is difficult for me to be confident -- regardless of the opponent -- because Minnesota has lost more "sure things" over the years than I care to recall. It's been a traumatic experience. But this is a game that the Gophers should win. I would be shocked if it was a blowout, because Minnesota has a talent for keeping games close, for better or for worse. And I think this will be a tight game for at least the first half, until the Gophers are able to pull away at some point. I think Minnesota has more talent and experience than Oregon State at the moment, and that will be the difference in the game, in my opinion. I'll predict something like 31-21 Gophers.
Big thanks to the Daily Gopher for being willing to answer some of our questions. Best of luck on Thursday, but as always go Beavers!