The Minnesota Golden Gophers surprised a lot of people in 2013 with an 8-5 record, including four consecutive conference wins. The Gophers had one of the most explosive and disruptive defensive tackles in the conference along with a defensive back that was drafted.
Those two players, along with several other starters, are going to have to be replaced. Head coach Jerry Kill is in year 4 at the helm of the Gopher program and has a roster almost exclusively of his recruits. Now the improved depth is going to have to show up to continue progressing the program in the right direction.
Here are the candidates to replace the players listed as starters for the Texas Bowl last season that either graduated or transferred out of the Gopher program.
Candidates: redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner, redshirt freshman Chris Streveler
Replacing: Phillip Nelson (transfer)
Leidner (No. 7 in the picture) split time with Nelson. Neither one emerged as the guy. Nelson decided to transfer to a program that he felt better utilized his skill set and is now in trouble with the law in his hometown of Mankato. Reports indicate that Leidner has taken on a greater leadership role this offseason and is the likely starter when the season begins against Eastern Illinois on Aug. 28. Streveler redshirted last season after injuring his thumb. He was a prized recruit that enrolled early at Minnesota last Spring. The Gophers struggled to throw the ball last season, but the coaching staff raved about the improvement made by the quarterbacks and receivers. The spring game in April was less encouraging than it was made out to be and work still looks like it needs to be done.
Candidates: redshirt sophomore Tyler Hartmann, junior Riley Oharah, junior Miles Thomas
Replacing: Mike Henry (graduation)
Henry (No. 30 in the picture) was an unsung hero of the Gophers offense last season. He did nothing special, but could clear a running path or make a catch. The three fullbacks on the Gophers’ roster have a combined two games of collegiate experience and none on offense. Hartmann played the final two games of last season on special teams, including a seven yard kick return. He came to the Gophers as a walk-on defensive lineman, but moved to offense before the start of last year’s spring practice. Oharah and Thomas are both walk-on junior college transfer teammates from Butler County Community College. They are blockers, first and foremost. That is what the Gophers require from their fullbacks. Whoever wins the job will not come with much fanfare nor will be highly noticeable.
Candidates: redshirt sophomore Ben Lauer, redshirt senior Marek Lenkiewicz
Replacing: Ed Olson (graduation)
Lauer and Olson split time last season. Lenkiewicz split time with Olson in the starting lineup the previous season. It only stands to reason that the two would be battling for the starting job this season. Lauer, a former walk-on from Wayzata High School, is an overwhelming favorite because of his play last season, along with his youth and higher upside.
Candidate: junior Scott Ekpe
Replacing: Ra’Shede Hageman (graduation)
Hageman (No. 99 in the picture) was the most heralded NFL prospect, even more so than star wide receiver Eric Decker, in some time for the Gophers. Opposing offenses created blocking schemes just for him. Ekpe was an early enrollee out of high school in 2012 and played a key role in both seasons since. After serving as the top reserve, it is now Ekpe’s time. He has a good frame and athleticism to dominate the middle of the defensive line the way Hageman did.
Candidates: redshirt junior De’Vondre Campbell, redshirt freshman De’Niro Laster, redshirt sophomore Jack Lynn, redshirt sophomore Nick Rallis, redshift freshman Chris Wipson
Replacing: Aaron Hill (graduation), James Manuel (graduation)
Hill (No. 57 in the picture) and Manuel were big contributors for the Gophers. Campbell was very good in the non-conference portion of the schedule. He is tall, lanky and very athletic. The problem came during the physical Big Ten Conference portion of the Gophers’ schedule. He is the favorite to start on the weak side, but don’t count out Laster. He is bigger than Campbell and just as athletic. He and Wipson had an outstanding spring game. Rallis and Lynn were top backups last season that will likely compete for the starting strong side spot. Just being able to say the Gophers have several potential starters at the linebacker spots is encouraging. It hasn’t happened in a while.
Candidates: redshirt junior Briean Boddy-Calhoun, senior Marcus Jones, redshirt freshman Daletavious McGhee, sophomore Jalen Myrick, senior Derrick Wells
Replacing: Brock Vereen (graduation)
Boddy-Calhoun is the likely starter after starting last season’s first two games. However, he is coming off a serious knee injury. The Gophers need Wells (No. 13 in the picture) to step up after he earned national recognition as a sophomore in 2012. This could be the most intriguing battle for a starting job. The two upperclassmen are proven talents. Both have an injury history; either serious or nagging. The dark horse upperclassmen is Jones, who is primarily a return man. He is just in his second season as a cornerback. McGhee and Myrick are the future of the gophers. They are second-year players. Myrick played some on defense, but mostly special teams last year. McGhee drew rave reviews during spring practice after redshirting last season.