Andy Greder: Minnesota Gophers, P.J. Fleck have long way to go

Wisconsin Badgers running back Bradrick Shaw (7) is knocked out of bounds by Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive back Antonio Shenault (34) and defensive back Duke McGhee (8) during the second quarter Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL

It’s necessary — cathartic, even — to turn the page to next year after the Gophers were outscored by a combined 70-0 against Northwestern and Wisconsin to squash this season.

After Saturday’s 31-0 loss to the No. 5 Badgers, Minnesota (5-7, 2-7 Big Ten) missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2012.

“That’s not ... the ultimate goal,” first-year Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said of a postseason spot. “We played a top-five team, and we proved we are not capable of beating a top-five team. That’s what it showed. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen in the future. We will be better. We. Will. Be. Better.”

To improve, the first item on the Gophers’ to-do list is to improve its passing offense. Minnesota finished 122nd out of 130 FBS programs with 126 yards per game.

They will have to do so without quarterback Demry Croft, who relieved senior Conor Rhoda midseason, and asked Fleck for a release from his scholarship after Saturday’s loss.

Right now, the Gophers have at least 21 departing players, including 10 starters against the Badgers at TCF Bank Stadium.

After the game, Fleck knew he was going to repeat himself, but he said it anyway: The Gophers will be younger next season. “We got a long way to go,” he cautioned.

Here are five questions heading into 2018:

Who is the future quarterback?

Although Croft, a to-be redshirt junior, would have been the most-experienced returning player at the position, his impending departure creates a wide opening at the all-important spot.

Redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan is the frontrunner right now. The 6-foot-2 freshman from Union, Ky., who Fleck brought over as a previous recruit from Western Michigan, has been improving during underclassmen scrimmages this season. The competition could include redshirt sophomore Seth Green, a former East Ridge QB, if he remains on the team.

Fleck wants to bring in one, or potentially two, quarterbacks in the 2018 recruiting class after the Gophers and former pledge Brennan Armstrong, from Shelby, Ohio, officially parted ways last week. That opened up a spot in the class.

How will the receiver corps look next season?

When leading receiver Tyler Johnson was lost for the season with a broken hand before the Northwestern game, no one stepped up as a viable alternative. Even with Johnson, the team lacked second and third options most of the season and was plagued by dropped passes, particularly down the stretch.

Johnson will be an important incumbent next season, with other candidates already in house or on their way.

Incoming freshmen Rashod Bateman, Jornell Manns and Eric Gibson are also looked at as players capable of playing next fall.

“The 2018 class is the first true big recruiting class to bring in,” Fleck said Saturday. “We are excited about them. We got to finish them up here in the next few weeks. And they should look at it as an opportunity to come in here and play. They really should.”

Which young players need to step up?

Beyond receiver, defensive end Ezezi Otomewo of Indianapolis will emerge from his redshirt year. Based on his practices this fall, Fleck called him a “freak” with an enormous upside at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds.

With Otomewo and four-star incoming true freshmen Alex Reigelsperger, of Dayton, Ohio, the Gophers could move Carter Coughlin from defensive end back to his more natural linebacker spot.

This could make the defense better next season. The move of Coughlin also would reunite the all-Minnesota-native linebacking corps of Thomas Barber, Kamal Martin and Coughlin.

With senior guards Vincent Calhoun and Garrison Wright gone, redshirt freshmen tackle Blaise Andries, the top Minnesota native in the 2017 class, likely will be called upon for his first action and also to prove his high regard.

How does defensive tackle shape up?

Among the 16 departing seniors, three are on the interior defensive line — the most affected position group on the roster.

Fleck was gobsmacked when he was hired in January that there is a lack of underclassman depth behind outgoing players Steven Richardson, Merrick Jackson and Andrew Stelter.

The Gophers netted Alabama transfer O.J. Smith to help fill the gap, and incoming true freshman Elijah Teague of Chicago is the second-highest-rated incoming player in the class behind Reigelsperger, according to 247sports.com.

How many additional players depart this offseason?

Beyond Croft, the number of other players exiting is expected to rise as the offseason continues.

“You had players that were bought in right away,” Fleck said. “You had people that were bought in six months later, and you have maybe some people that haven’t bought in even yet.”

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