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Tracy Claeys wasn't a creative hire, but he could win immediately at Minnesota

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Minnesota hired its new head coach with almost no fanfare, but he's got plenty of wins on the table. This is Bill C.'s 128-team college football preview, currently moving through the Big Ten.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. Creativity isn't always better

My initial reaction was the same as many others'.

As a whole, a conference improves when it makes better hires. It's that simple. When Pac-12 schools hired Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh in 2007, then followed with guys like Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Mike Leach, Chris Petersen, and Jim Mora in the following years, the product improved rather dramatically. The Pac-12 North is now maybe the second-strongest division in college football. A decade or so ago, it was a desert.

It's the same with the ACC this year. In the last 20 months, the conference has brought in Mark Richt, Pat Narduzzi, Justin Fuente, Bronco Mendenhall, and Dino Babers. Mendenhall won 99 games in 11 years at BYU and was almost completely overshadowed because of the magnitude of some of the other hires.

The Big Ten, meanwhile, might be getting its act together in some regard. In the same 20-month (or so) span, Michigan has replaced Brady Hoke with Harbaugh, Maryland and Rutgers have both replaced coaches with mediocre-at-best success with well-regarded, seemingly high-ceiling Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh assistants. Illinois went from Bill Cubit to a Super Bowl coach in Lovie Smith.

Not all of these moves will work out, obviously. Coaching is the ultimate zero-sum game. Most (though definitely not all) hires make some degree of sense, and most head coaches are smart football guys who could succeed in the right circumstances. But in every game that is played, someone has to lose.

Regardless, in terms of aggression and ambition, these hires were all commended to a certain degree.

When Minnesota replaced Jerry Kill with Tracy Claeys, then, it was easy to be underwhelmed. Over the last four years, Minnesota has gone 28-24. That's clear improvement over the 20-42 record the Gophers had pulled off over the five previous years, but is it enough improvement, enough sure quality, for UM to simply give the job to Kill's right-hand man upon Kill's sudden retirement? And beyond the "who," the Gophers rushed to make this hire. They didn't check out the marketplace or weigh other names or take stock. They just gave the job to Claeys.

If nothing else, while all these other schools were making ambitious hires, it was easy to feel like Minnesota was happy with treading water.

Of course, hires are only judged based on feel and perception and aesthetics until they actually coach a game. And for whatever ambition we can claim the Gophers do or do not have, they have been a top-40 team for two straight years, per S&P+. They hadn't pulled that off even once since Glen Mason's last year in charge (2006).

With recruiting rankings typically in the high-50s or 60s, it was easy to wonder what Minnesota's ceiling was going to be under Kill. Heck, he might have already bumped his head on it. And we obviously don't know if or how Claeys might raise that ceiling. Plus, there's the small matter of Mason getting run out of town -- a decade ago, Minnesota was tired of merely fielding a top-40 team, and a decade later the school is celebrating it.

All of this undersells Claeys, however. Or at least, it might. The 47-year old Kansas State alum coached for Kill for 20 years, sure, but he's had plenty of time to work on his own plans as a head coach. He pushed out a couple of Kill assistants and brought in a couple of new influences on offense. And after Minnesota couldn't manage better than a No. 55 recruiting class ranking under Kill (per the 247Sports Composite), Claeys' first class cracked the top 50.

Claeys was Kill's righthand man, but Kill 2.0 could still end up an upgrade, too. And with what Minnesota returns in 2016, the Gophers could contend in the Big Ten West right out of the gates. Per S&P+, their conference win projection is higher than Iowa's. That would certainly be a pretty impressive way to make a first full impression.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 55 | Final S&P+ Rk: 37
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
3-Sep TCU 19 17-23 L 53% 11% +3.1
12-Sep at Colorado State 86 23-20 W 63% 40% +1.3 -3.0
19-Sep Kent State 109 10-7 W 93% 100% -10.9 -21.0
26-Sep Ohio 69 27-24 W 74% 65% -13.3 -7.5
3-Oct at Northwestern 52 0-27 L 16% 0% -26.8 -22.5
10-Oct at Purdue 93 41-13 W 96% 100% +17.8 +25.0
17-Oct Nebraska 36 25-48 L 32% 4% -29.2 -25.0
31-Oct Michigan 8 26-29 L 83% 55% +17.8 +11.0
7-Nov at Ohio State 3 14-28 L 53% 5% +6.0 +9.0
14-Nov at Iowa 38 35-40 L 84% 78% +7.1 +7.5
21-Nov Illinois 65 32-23 W 82% 86% +4.6 +4.5
28-Nov Wisconsin 32 21-31 L 45% 6% -11.4 -7.5
28-Dec vs. Central Michigan 67 21-14 W 77% 72% -2.5 +1.0

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 30.1 58 20.9 23
Points Per Game 22.5 106 25.2 45

2. A bumpy ride

If you're looking for hope about a higher ceiling under Claeys, this February's slight recruiting uptick was certainly a favorable sign. Rising to 48th isn't the same as rising into the top 25 or something, but it's a start.

Meanwhile, the actual product on the field seemed to improve a touch when Claeys took over, too. You just couldn't tell it because the schedule also improved.

  • First 7 games:
    Record: 4-3 | Average percentile performance: 61% (~top 50) | Yards per play: UM 5.0, Opp 4.6 (+0.4)
  • Last 6 games:
    Record: 2-4 | Average percentile performance: 71% (~top 35) | Yards per play: UM 5.8, Opp 5.2 (+0.6)

Kill stepped down due to ongoing health issues the week of the Michigan game, and the Gophers proceeded to nearly take down a Michigan team that had been one of the stories of the season to that point. They outgained the Wolverines by 165 yards (1.9 per play) and won the turnover margin. They lost mainly because Michigan scored touchdowns on all four of its scoring opportunities, and while Minnesota created more of them, the Gophers settled for four field goals and ended the game at the Michigan 1.

Against Iowa, meanwhile, the Gophers produced an outstanding 61 percent success rate to Iowa's 49 and outgained the Hawkeyes by 0.9 yards per play. But again, they fell just short.

Winning either one of these games would have given Claeys a feather in the cap. Regardless, Minnesota was a competitive team with a better offense and less successful defense under his watch. We'll see what happens when he and his staff have had a full offseason to prepare.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.22 82 IsoPPP+ 103.2 55
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 39.4% 92 Succ. Rt. + 113.8 20
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 30.3 79 Def. FP+ 28.0 37
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.2 89 Redzone S&P+ 115.8 19
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.2 ACTUAL 22 -1.2
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 103 46 20 55
RUSHING 101 81 68 79
PASSING 73 33 5 55
Standard Downs 39 31 40
Passing Downs 66 12 87
Q1 Rk 83 1st Down Rk 62
Q2 Rk 39 2nd Down Rk 52
Q3 Rk 59 3rd Down Rk 65
Q4 Rk 32

3. A Jay Johnson offense

Most of the coaching staff still has a Kill-heavy feel to it, but Claeys clearly felt the need to shake up the offense a bit. That's almost a little bit odd considering it improved late in the year, but the Gophers were still 58th in Off. S&P+ overall, squandering the efforts of a top-25 defense.

Claeys' choice in replacing Matt Limegrover was an interesting one: He brought in Jay Johnson, most recently of UL-Lafayette.

In a lot of ways, Johnson's offensive tendencies were Limegrover's: Run slightly more than normal on standard downs, pass slightly more than normal on passing downs, play at a plodding tempo and don't be afraid to run the quarterback.

The Ragin' Cajuns spread defenders out more and forced more solo tackles than Minnesota, and they were intent on sitting on the ball when they had a lead (running 86 percent of the time in garbage time situations), but there are far more similarities than differences.

Still, he did spread defenses out a bit more, and while his 2015 Cajuns offense struggled with drastic turnover, when he had a strong quarterback in place and experience around said quarterback, he did some damage. That offense graded out far better than Minnesota's in 2012-13 and was just about even in 2014. And in theory, Johnson could have both the quarterback and the overall offensive experience he needs in 2016.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Mitch Leidner 6'4, 230 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8286 242 407 2701 14 11 59.5% 16 3.8% 6.2
Demry Croft 6'5, 200 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8532 7 17 34 0 0 41.2% 3 15.0% 0.9
Conor Rhoda 6'3, 219 Jr. NR NR
Seth Green 6'4, 235 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8813

4. Has Todd McShay lost his damn mind?

It's amazing how quickly guys can go from underrated to overrated. When watching the FCS season opener between Montana and North Dakota State last year, I found that I liked NDSU quarterback Carson Wentz a decent amount. He had good size and a decent arm, and he seemed pretty composed. I thought he could maybe turn into a pretty solid mid-round pick.

Wentz missed half the season with injury but was still moving into first-round projections by the end of the season. And within a few weeks of the end of the season, he was talked about as a potential No. 1 pick. (He ended up going No. 2.)

This was honestly baffling to me. He's a perfectly solid quarterback, and a 152.3 passer rating is pretty good at any level. But his backup produced a 150.3 in his absence, and ... really? No. 2 pick? Carson Wentz?

Mitch Leidner, meanwhile, has developed nicely at Minnesota. As a freshman part-timer in 2013, he ran more than he threw and produced just a 114.7 passer rating in conference play. As a sophomore in 2014, he showed flashes of potential through ups and downs -- 71.9 passer rating against TCU, 142.4 against Michigan, 111.5 against Illinois, 267.6 against Iowa, 53.4 against Ohio State.

In 2015, Leidner struggled for a while in developing a rapport with a mostly new set of receivers. But he slowly got somewhere.

  • First 5 games: 57 percent completion rate, 10.4 yards per completion, 111.9 rating
  • Last 8 games: 61 percent completion rate, 11.6 yards per completion, 127.1 rating

Now, you can't really use demonstrative verbs to describe that. It wasn't a surge; it wasn't a leap, but it was improvement. And when you see that Minnesota ranked fifth in Passing Success Rate+ last year, you're reminded that he was producing these numbers against strong defensive competition.

Heading into 2016, then, with another year of experience and a far more familiar receiving corps, it's easy to think Leidner might be able to take another step forward. Minnesota was 33rd in Passing S&P+ last year and could certainly hope to rise into the top 25 or 30 this year.

That's not a charging hype train right there, but it's optimism. This, on the other hand, is a charging hype train: ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay projected Leidner as a first-round pick in May.

Leidner shows some upside as a passer, but I'll be looking to see if he can improve his accuracy. ... Leidner has ideal size and has thown the ability to make plays with his legs off designed runs and scrambles. He's a late riser to keep an eye on, similar to Blake Bortles and Carson Wentz.

Sigh. A guy with a 56 percent career completion rate and a 123.2 career passer rating, who was basically a fullback playing quarterback two years ago, now has to deal with first-round hype. This helps no one.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Rodney Smith RB 5'11, 205 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8352 157 670 2 4.3 3.5 36.3% 0 0
Shannon Brooks RB 6'0, 210 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8364 119 709 7 6.0 9.8 30.3% 4 2
Mitch Leidner QB 6'4, 230 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8286 91 369 6 4.1 3.4 35.2% 8 5
Rodrick Williams Jr. RB 33 108 1 3.3 1.7 24.2% 1 1
KJ Maye WR 9 46 1 5.1 2.4 55.6% 1 1
Demry Croft QB 6'5, 200 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8532 6 55 0 9.2 10.6 50.0% 0 0
Berkley Edwards RB 5 29 0 5.8 13.5 20.0% 0 0
Chris Streveler QB 4 8 0 2.0 0.7 25.0% 0 0
Miles Thomas FB
Jonathan Femi-Cole RB 6'0, 225 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8272
James Johannesson RB 6'1, 230 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8159
Kobe McCrary RB 6'1, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8332







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
KJ Maye WR-Z 125 73 773 58.4% 30.4% 6.2 52.8% 46.4% 1.21
Drew Wolitarsky WR-X 6'3, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8373 62 39 524 62.9% 15.1% 8.5 51.6% 48.4% 1.61
Brandon Lingen TE 6'5, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7984 49 33 428 67.3% 11.9% 8.7 57.1% 55.1% 1.46
Rashad Still WR-X 6'5, 205 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8073 36 18 194 50.0% 8.8% 5.4 47.2% 38.9% 1.20
Eric Carter WR-Z 5'11, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8146 35 23 255 65.7% 8.5% 7.3 48.6% 45.7% 1.45
Rodney Smith RB 5'11, 205 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8352 22 16 124 72.7% 5.4% 5.6 50.0% 31.8% 1.37
Shannon Brooks RB 6'0, 210 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8364 21 17 167 81.0% 5.1% 8.0 57.1% 47.6% 1.34
Nate Wozniak TE 6'10, 275 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8432 15 8 75 53.3% 3.6% 5.0 33.3% 40.0% 1.13
Nick Hart TE 6'5, 245 Jr. NR NR 13 9 84 69.2% 3.2% 6.5 53.8% 30.8% 1.88
Melvin Holland Jr. WR-Z 6'3, 205 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8601 9 2 8 22.2% 2.2% 0.9 33.3% 0.0% 0.00
Miles Thomas FB 8 4 42 50.0% 1.9% 5.3 87.5% 37.5% 1.38
Rodrick Williams Jr. RB 7 4 58 57.1% 1.7% 8.3 57.1% 42.9% 1.49
Isaiah Gentry WR 6'4, 225 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8274 4 2 36 50.0% 1.0% 9.0 50.0% 50.0% 1.83
Duke Anyanwu TE 6'4, 245 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7875
Brian Smith WR 6'4, 210 Jr. NR NR
Hunter Register WR 6'5, 215 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8386
Tyler Johnson WR 6'2, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8643
Phillip Howard WR 5'11, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8509

5. Plenty of support if the line holds up

It should probably be mentioned that Minnesota's offensive line was pretty strong last year -- 24th in Adj. Line Yards, 21st in Adj. Sack Rate -- and must replace six players who had accounted for 115 career starts. That's not good.

Of course, Minnesota's line was an injury-depleted carcass by the end of the year, which means that a) ranking in the top 25 in both line categories was a spectacular accomplishment and b) three other guys with starting experience return, including enormous right tackle Jonah Pirsig, the only guy to last all 13 games in 2015.

Of course, Limegrover was the offensive line coach, so getting rid of him as offensive coordinator includes maybe getting rid of the best offensive position coach on the staff. (He's now at Penn State.) New OL coach Bart Miller, formerly of FAU, has big shoes to fill.

If the line holds up, though, there's plenty to like elsewhere. Sophomores Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks showed potential while trying to carry the running game; Smith was a decent efficiency guy, and while Brooks was all-or-nothing, the alls were impressive.

Combined with a receiving corps that returns senior Drew Wolitarsky and tight end Brandon Lingen (both of whom averaged a solid 8.5 yards per target or so), you have some weapons. Lingen is efficient, and while it seems Minnesota is always looking for one more big-play guy, it's possible that someone like sophomore Isaiah Gentry or big redshirt freshman Hunter Register can fill that role. A lack of big plays held Minnesota back a bit (Brooks aside), but the efficiency aspect should be there again.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 110.2 2.88 3.29 33.7% 60.5% 15.9% 155.1 4.4% 3.6%
Rank 24 66 59 113 102 12 21 55 8
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Josh Campion RT 4 43
Jon Christenson LG 8 22
Jonah Pirsig RT 6'9, 325 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8724 13 20
Joe Bjorklund RG 9 17
Foster Bush LT 5 14
Ben Lauer LT
4 14
Connor Mayes RG 6'5, 330 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8726 9 9
Tyler Moore C 6'4, 305 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8539 8 8
Brian Bobek C 5 5
Jared Weyler LG 6'4, 305 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8017 0 0
Matt Leidner C 6'2, 290 Jr. NR NR 0 0
Chad Fahning RT 6'6, 290 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) NR 0 0
Quinn Oseland OL 6'6, 320 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8553

Bronson Dovich OL 6'5, 300 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8392

Ted Stieber OL 6'6, 320 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8367

Nick Connelly OL 6'7, 300 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8310

Garrison Wright OL 6'4, 320 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8472

Vincent Calhoun OL 64, 330 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8189

Sam Schlueter OL 6'6, 290 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8603


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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.08 3 IsoPPP+ 112.8 32
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 42.0% 69 Succ. Rt. + 100.3 66
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 28.0 107 Off. FP+ 29.8 69
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.4 67 Redzone S&P+ 101.3 67
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 18.9 ACTUAL 18.0 -0.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 24 44 66 32
RUSHING 61 81 84 70
PASSING 11 17 42 13
Standard Downs 46 70 35
Passing Downs 36 67 25
Q1 Rk 78 1st Down Rk 41
Q2 Rk 33 2nd Down Rk 37
Q3 Rk 33 3rd Down Rk 25
Q4 Rk 50

6. Promoting the guy with the awesome secondary

Claeys changing offices opened up a vacancy at defensive coordinator, and he didn't look too far to fill it: Jay Sawvel, leader of the Minnesota secondary (typically one of the better units in the Big Ten) got himself a promotion.

One assumes not too much will change with the Minnesota defense, then. And that's fine; not much needs to change. The Gophers have carved out a decent niche as an opportunistic bend-don't-break unit, sacrificing efficiency for big-play prevention but still playing efficiently enough to make it work. Minnesota allowed only 16 gains of 30-plus yards all season -- only six teams allowed fewer -- and a lot of that was due to an awesome pass defense.

This could be a "strength gets weaker, weakness gets stronger" situation in 2016. The front seven returns a majority of its two-deep and features a couple of nice weapons in tackle Steven Richardson and linebacker Jack Lynn. Meanwhile, the secondary must replace its top three tacklers, including two strong corners in Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun. The secondary might be deep enough to absorb the losses, especially with the return of safety Damarius Travis, who was injured in 2015. Still, losing Murray, Boddy-Calhoun, and safety Antonio Johnson hurts.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 94.9 3.08 3.34 38.8% 71.4% 17.4% 113.7 2.7% 9.0%
Rank 87 93 76 72 98 97 42 114 34
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Theiren Cockran DE 13 22.5 3.0% 7.0 3.0 0 2 0 0
Steven Richardson DT 6'0, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8142 10 20.0 2.7% 8.0 3.5 0 2 1 0
Andrew Stelter DT 6'4, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8473 13 19.5 2.6% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Alex Keith DE 12 18.5 2.5% 2.5 0.0 0 2 0 0
Scott Ekpe DT 6'4, 285 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8104 7 14.0 1.9% 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Yoshoub Timms DT 6'2, 295 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000 8 10.0 1.3% 2.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Gaelin Elmore DE 6'6, 275 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8568 12 9.0 1.2% 3.5 1.5 0 2 0 0
Hendrick Ekpe DE 6'5, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8167 13 7.5 1.0% 2.5 2.5 0 2 0 0
Robert Ndondo-Lay DT 7 4.0 0.5% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Julien Kafo DE 6'4, 265 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7882 2 2.0 0.3% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jerry Gibson DE 6'3, 245 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8151
Gary Moore DT 6'4, 295 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7994
Winston DeLattiboudere DE 6'3, 240 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8348
Merrick Jackson DT 6'2, 320 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8352








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Cody Poock LB 6'2, 230 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8069 12 77.5 10.4% 5.5 0.0 0 0 1 0
De'Vondre Campbell LB 13 72.5 9.8% 6.5 4.0 1 3 1 0
Jack Lynn LB 6'3, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8264 13 59.0 7.9% 11.0 1.5 0 2 1 0
Jonathan Celestin LB 6'1, 220 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7982 13 33.0 4.4% 4.0 0.0 0 1 1 0
Julian Huff LB 6'0, 225 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8035 13 16.5 2.2% 3.5 2.5 0 1 0 0
Nick Rallis LB 5'11, 235 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8342 13 14.5 2.0% 3.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Everett Williams LB 6'1, 235 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8079 7 8.5 1.1% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Blake Cashman LB 6'2, 225 So. NR NR 11 3.5 0.5% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Ray Dixon LB 6'3, 225 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8287
Jaylen Waters LB 6'3, 255 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8364
Carter Coughlin LB 6'4, 220 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9528
Kamal Martin LB 6'3, 225 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8518
Thomas Barber LB 6'1, 240 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8425








7. Now just force opponents to pass

The strengths and weaknesses of the Minnesota defense were out in the open last year. It was pretty clear, pretty quickly, that the Gophers were struggling to defend the run; meanwhile, they had a top-20 pass defense. So what would you have done? Run, and run often, of course. Opponents did just that.

So I guess that makes the prescription pretty easy too, huh? The Gophers won't be able to exploit what should still be a decent pass defense if they can't stop the run better. Step one toward improvement up front: health. Ten linemen averaged at least half a tackle per game, but only three played in all 13 games. Tackles Scott Ekpe and Yoshoub Timms made it barely half the season, and Minnesota had to dip a little too far down the depth chart to find contributors.

In theory, the result of this is experience. Almost every tackle is back this year, including Richardson, Ekpe, and Timms, and while the top two tacklers at end are gone, quite a few return. Simple continuity will do this defense favors because the better the line can eat up blocks, the more linebackers Cody Poock, Jack Lynn, and Jonathan Celestin can flow to the ball. The three combined for 19 non-sack tackles for loss even despite the line issues. A sturdy line could bump that total about 25.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Antonio Johnson S 13 80.0 10.8% 2 0 1 3 0 0
Eric Murray CB 13 56.5 7.6% 4 1 1 7 3 0
Damarius Travis
(2014)
S 6'2, 215 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7000 13 49.0 7.2% 3.5 0 2 5 1 1
Briean Boddy-Calhoun CB 11 42.5 5.7% 1.5 0.5 4 6 0 0
Adekunle Ayinde S 6'0, 205 Jr. NR NR 13 35.0 4.7% 2.5 0 0 5 0 0
Duke McGhee S 6'1, 205 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7983 13 32.0 4.3% 1 0 0 2 0 0
Jalen Myrick CB 5'10, 205 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8151 10 22.5 3.0% 3.5 0.5 3 3 0 0
Antonio Shenault CB 5'11, 180 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8285 12 13.0 1.7% 0 0 0 1 0 0
KiAnte Hardin CB 5'10, 175 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8083 13 11.0 1.5% 1 0 0 1 0 0
Ace Rogers S 6'1, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8535 3 10.0 1.3% 1 0 0 1 0 0
Craig James CB 5 3.5 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Eric Amoako S 5'11, 195 Sr. NR NR
Jacob Huff S 5'11, 205 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8156
Dior Johnson S 6'2, 210 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8574
Ray Buford CB 6'2, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8463
Coney Durr CB 5'10, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8375








8. Turnover and continuity

That the defense did as well as it did despite having to provide quite a bit of run support, and despite losing an excellent safety in Damarius Travis, plus an early-season contributor in Ace Rogers, was awfully impressive. And it could set the table for another strong performance this year.

Continuity is generally important in the secondary, and losing your top three tacklers is the opposite of continuity. But getting Travis and Rogers back, along with corner Jalen Myrick (last two years: 4.5 tackles for loss, 14 passes defensed), will help immensely. And some of the youngsters who had to take on larger roles last year -- junior safeties Adekunle Ayinde and Duke McGhee, sophomore corners Antonio Shenault -- could be ready to shine, as well. If the run defense improves, the pass defense will be able to do its part even if there's a little bit of regression.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Peter Mortell 74 43.4 2 17 27 59.5%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Ryan Santoso 6'6, 250 Jr. 58 59.7 27 6 46.6%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Ryan Santoso 6'6, 250 Jr. 31-31 10-10 100.0% 7-11 63.6%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Jalen Myrick KR 5'10, 205 Sr. 12 21.4 0
KiAnte Hardin KR 5'10, 175 So. 11 24.3 0
Craig James PR 12 -0.6 0
KiAnte Hardin PR 5'10, 175 So. 9 6.8 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 4
Field Goal Efficiency 16
Punt Return Success Rate 112
Kick Return Success Rate 12
Punt Success Rate 29
Kickoff Success Rate 55

9. Santoso is fantastic

Minnesota got almost nothing out of punt returns but thrived in basically every other special teams department. Losing punter Peter Mortell hurts, but the return of kicker Ryan Santoso should assure another solid special teams grade. He's accurate inside of 40 yards and nails a good portion of his longer kicks, too. He could stand to bump that touchback rate up a bit, but he's good. And with the return of both Jalen Myrick and KiAnte Hardin in kick returns, the Gophers seem well suited to shootouts this year. The more kickoffs, the better the special teams advantage.

(No, I don't expect a lot of Gopher shootouts. But I'm just saying.)

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Oregon State 86 13.4 78%
10-Sep Indiana State NR 30.1 96%
24-Sep Colorado State 96 16.9 84%
1-Oct at Penn State 28 -7.7 33%
8-Oct Iowa 38 2.4 56%
15-Oct at Maryland 62 0.6 51%
22-Oct Rutgers 87 13.6 78%
29-Oct at Illinois 76 3.1 57%
5-Nov Purdue 88 13.7 78%
12-Nov at Nebraska 26 -8.0 32%
19-Nov Northwestern 46 5.4 62%
26-Nov at Wisconsin 37 -4.7 39%
Projected wins: 7.5
Five-Year F/+ Rk -1.1% (63)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 53 / 58
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / -4.3
2015 TO Luck/Game +0.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 66% (84%, 48%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 6.2 (-0.2)

10. A fast start is quite conceivable

For all we know, it's going to take Claeys a year to get used to calling the shots. Granted, he got a head start last fall, but his team also lost a couple of games it should have won. Maybe the same thing will happen in 2016. And maybe the pressure from first-round hype leads to more mistakes from Leidner. This could obviously all go wrong.

But if the Gophers have their house in order from the beginning of the season, and if they're at least decent at closing out games ... well ... an 8-1 start is at least on the table.

Per S&P+, they have a below-50 percent chance of winning in only one game in the first nine games, and while there are a few tossups (and you probably can't expect to win all of those), if they handle their business in September, October could have quite a bit of magnitude. And if Claeys is able to skate through this schedule and stick a nine-win total or something on the board, then I'm really curious where his recruiting goes from there.

There's nothing saying his tenure is going to raise the ceiling that Kill established, but you can at least see the path for such a thing. And that's all Minnesota can ask for at this stage.