The Minnesota Golden Gophers improved and doubled its win total from the previous season in 2012. Following a good showing, albeit in a loss, in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, the team has elevated expectations and momentum to do so.
Here are the five question marks surrounding the Gopher football team this offseason.
How long will Philip Nelson's leash be as the starting quarterback?
The Mankato native took over as the starting quarterback in the seventh game of the season. He had a breakout game in his second start, but for the most part the Gopher offense struggled over the final six games. The only other quarterback on the roster with eligibility remaining has decided to transfer. The backup is expected to be Lakeville native Mitch Leidner. He will be a redshirt freshman with an impressive arm, but may not have the athleticism to run the Gophers' offense effectively. The only quarterback on the roster is Dexter Foreman. He has been on the sideline for two seasons now and has not gotten on the field. The Gophers have a commitment from a quarterback in Illinois, who has drawn rave reviews from recruiting analysts. The job is Nelson's to lose, but who is going to take his place?
Who is going to be the go-to receiver?
The would-have-been answer left the team in unceremonious fashion late last season. Now one of the young receivers needs to step up and be the guy Nelson can trust. There are a lot of qualified candidates, seven returning wide receivers have the talent to do it. Devin Crawford-Tufts, K.J. Maye, Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison have the most talent of the candidates, but need to tighten up their game. Derrick Engel is the most consistent player of the bunch. Will one of them step up and force opposing defenses to game plan around him?
Who is going to be the leader of the defense?
The defense loses five starters, including two linebackers. Brendan Beal was in-line to be the starting middle linebacker. He has the ability to be the leader and quarterback of the defense. However, he suffered another serious injury, the fourth of his career since entering college in 2008. In fact, he has missed all or most of his collegiate career because of injuries. Whether or not he plays again is still publically unknown. If the most recent injury, suffered late last season, forces him to miss this season, there is a big hole in the middle of the defense. The Gophers have a commitment from a junior college middle linebacker, who is expected to be the starter. Will a junior college newcomer be the leader the Gophers need on defense?
Who is going to be the pass rushing specialist?
The team leader in sacks graduated and the returning leader in the category is defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman with six. The Gophers need to get more pressure from its edges and the three likely candidates to do it are Michael Amaefula, Theiren Cockran and Alex Keith. They combined for five sacks last season. Can the three young defensive ends take the next step and become a feared pass rusher in the Big Ten?
Who are going to be the starting cornerbacks?
The two starters, both now graduated, had very good seasons. The reserves were junior college transfers that made their share of mistakes. Jeremy Baltazar was the most frequently used reserve at corner. He is most likely to man one of the starting spots. The other two junior college players Martez Shabazz and Briean Boddy should get the first looks at the other starting spot. Eric Murray is another guy to watch. The coaches really liked him last year. They all will be pushed by more than one commitment. Can one of them become shutdown corners in the Big Ten?