There’s really no other way around it. Minnesota’s offense disappointed last year.
The Gophers scored more than 30 points just three times in 2015. They were shut out by Northwestern, only put up 10 points on Kent State and closed the season with a measly 14 points against the Central Michigan Chippewas.
This year, the Gophers return everyone. Senior quarterback Mitch Leidner is coming off a season in which he passed for 2,701 yards and the two lead running backs return for their sophomore seasons. So the offense should be somewhat better. Right?
Let’s look at Minnesota by the numbers:
Total yards per game: 358.9 (12th in the Big Ten/ No. 103 nationally)
Rushing yards per game: 144.1 (11th in the Big Ten/ No. 100 nationally)
Passing yards per game: 214.8 (8th in the Big Ten/No. 73 nationally
Key players lost: none
Key returning players: RB Shannon Brooks, RB Rodney Smith
Sophomores Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith together will combine for a solid running attack.
Smith led the Gophers last season with 157 carries. Brooks only carried the ball 119 times, but he led the team with 709 rushing yards. With a decent offensive line and the always dangerous Leidner, who had 107 carries last season himself, the Minnesota run attack won’t be sexy, but it should be diverse.
Key players lost: none
Key returning players: QB Mitch Leidner, WR Drew Wolitarsky
Pass-heavy Minnesota brings back everyone in 2016. Leidner will return for this senior season after two straight seasons of more than 1,500 yards. In 2015, Leidner threw for 2,701 yards.
In 2016, the schedule favors Leidner to throw more. And if Minnesota wants to be a Cinderella in the Big Ten West, he’s going to need to throw for 3,000 or more yards.
Leidner returns his top three receivers in Wolitarsky, Brandon Lingen and Eric Carter.
One stat that must improve
Simply enough, either Brooks or Smith need to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
Ranking 11th in the Big Ten for rushing won’t cut it, and Brooks has the potential to be a surprise star in 2016. Brooks led the team in averaging 6 yards per rushing attempt in 2015 and led the team with seven touchdowns – impressive feats for a freshman splitting time.
In 2016, he could win the starting job and steal some of Smith’s carries, or even help reduce the number of runs from Leidner.
Can Leidner take the next step?
Scouts are calling Leidner an NFL talent. The best way for Leidner to prove it is to become a 3,000 yard passer and command this Gopher team to wins over teams they probably shouldn’t beat in 2016, like Nebraska or Northwestern.
Leidner also needs to take next is to become more efficient, both increasing touchdowns and reducing interceptions.
Better or worse in 2016?
What this offense needs is a spark plug or difference maker, and, as much as Leidner is a talent, he’s going to need to play on another level this season for the Gophers to win the Big Ten West. This season’s tests aren’t as awful as last year with the 2016 schedule putting them against Penn State, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
So there are opportunities for Minnesota to surprise people. But would be most surprising of all is if the Gophers can get a consistently efficient offense going each week.