Minnesota enters the 2021 season looking to regain the momentum it established two years ago.
In 2019, the Golden Gophers went 11-2 and played in a January bowl game, knocking off Auburn in the Outback Bowl. But the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Minnesota throughout the 2020 season. Two of Minnesota’s games were called off, and the Gophers posted a 3-4 record before opting out of playing in a bowl game due to numerous COVID-19 infections within the team.
Minnesota’s defense surrendered 30 or more points in four games last season, including a 49-24 season-opening loss to Michigan and a 45-44 overtime loss at Maryland.
Still, there were some bright spots. Mohamed Ibrahim emerged as the best running back in the Big Ten for the Golden Gophers, rushing for 1,076 yards on 5.4 yards per carry with 15 TDs. Ibrahim will be back this season, along with starting quarterback Tanner Morgan, who threw for 1,374 yards and seven TDs in 2020. Receivers Chris Autman-Bell and Daniel Jackson will be the top targets for Morgan this season.
Overall, Minnesota returns nine starters on offense, including four on the offensive line, and six starters on defense.
Here’s an early look at Minnesota heading into the 2021 season:
WHAT THEY LOST
Starting receiver Rashod Bateman (36 catches, 472 yards, two TDs) declared for the NFL draft, where he was taken in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens. Seth Green, a Wildcat quarterback who rushed for 388 yards and 15 TDs over three seasons at Minnesota, transferred to Houston. Benjamin St-Juste, a two-year starter at cornerback who posted 13 career pass breakups, declared for the NFL draft, where he was taken in the third round by the Washington Football Team.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
Clemson grad transfer Nyles Pinckney (13.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and three fumble recoveries in 55 career games) was brought in to solidify Minnesota’s defensive front. Another grad transfer on defense, 6-foot-4, 240-pound linebacker Jack Gibbens, should help shore up some of Minnesota’s tackling issues. Gibbens totaled 258 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and five interceptions in his four-year career at Abilene Christian. Dylan Wright, a wide receiver transfer from Texas A&M, will add another weapon in the passing game. Minnesota brought in three transfers in an attempt to shore up some deficiencies on special teams – kicker Matthew Trickett (Kent State), kicker Will Mobley (Tempe) and punter Daniel Sparks (Louisiana-Monroe).
PROSPECTS FOR 2021
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck brings infectious energy to every team he coaches, even if it rubs some opponents the wrong way. Minnesota’s offense has the potential to be elite, but holes remain on defense and special teams. Those holes could be exposed right away, as Minnesota opens Sept. 2 hosting defending Big Ten champion Ohio State. Even if Minnesota gets big seasons from Morgan and Ibrahim, defense will dictate whether the Gophers can move back closer to the top of the Big Ten West division standings.