Success for Gopher Football in 2021 Means Heavy Improvement Inside and Out

PHOTO: AARON LAVINSKY – STAR TRIBUNE

Optimism is running amuck at the Bronko Nagurski Practice Facility on the University of Minnesota campus this summer. The Gopher football team is selling that hope to fans and media, too. Their ongoing message is crystal clear.

Learn from, and then forget 2020. The Gophers believe most of their struggles last season stemmed from COVID-related exigent circumstances and they fully expect 2021 to look a lot more like 2019. Why?

The pandemic kicked PJ Fleck and his football team in the teeth last season, as they stumbled their way to a 3-4 finish, before voluntarily withdrawing from bowl season. But the extra year of eligibility it created for seniors, along with a handful of incoming transfers expected to contribute immediately, have the 2021 Minnesota Gophers feeling much more confident than what the rest of the country expects from them.

In the trenches

Success in football always starts on the offensive and defensive line, especially when you rely so much on the run game, like the Gophers do. Both the OL and DL struggled in 2020, which killed the pass game on offense and allowing teams to run them over on defense.

Daniel Faalele (opt-out) and Curtis Dunlap (injury) were both absent from the offensive line all season, costing them depth they couldn’t afford to lose. On the defensive side, youth, injuries and COVID absences left Rossi relying on linemen who never should have been on the field.

But it’s clear, PJ Fleck doesn’t expect that to be a problem in 2021. Minnesota believes (and their fans hope) that growth from their youngsters combined with the additions of Nyles Pinckney (Clemson) and Val Martin (NC State), will fix their problems on the defensive front line. On the offensive side, Faalele and Dunlap both return to one of the largest and most experienced O-lines in the country.

Linebackers matter too

We could almost swap this section with the d-line section above. Both levels of the defense struggled with the youth they were forced to put on the field in 2020, after key departures from the 2019 team. Just like the DL, Fleck brought in a transfer (Jack Gibbens – Abilene Christian University), who’s expected to contribute immediately.

Beyond the addition of Gibbens, success will rely on the return from injury of Braelen Oliver, plus much growth from guys like Mariano Sori-Marin, Cody Lindenberg, James Gordon, Josh Aune and others.

But, it’s not just about separate improvements on the defensive line and in the linebacker group. It’s about combining the two. Deepening and growing the front-seven will surely make the difference on defense. The question, however, is whether the improvements will be enough.

Tanner Morgan’s passing game

There have been a lot of tough times had for many, over the last couple of years. The Minnesota Gophers starting QB, Tanner Morgan, wasn’t spared. After a long battle with brain cancer, everyone’s favorite dad, Ted Morgan, passed away just weeks ago.

Now, Tanner has to turn around and prep himself for the biggest football season of his life, without his dad there to help him through it. Morgan struggled mightily on the field last year, throwing for under 1500 yards, just 7 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Quite the fall off from his 3200+ yards, 30 TD’s and 7 INT’s in 2019.

If the Gophers are going to have success in 2021, Tanner Morgan needs to be much closer to the 2019 version, than what we saw last year. An improved OL should help but the loss of Bateman won’t. With Mohamed Ibrahim lining up behind him, Tanner could push the Minnesota offense to the top of the Big Ten West, if he does have another breakout year.

Morgan’s success vs failure in 2021 could be the difference between a future in the NFL and a future in a desk job like everyone else. No pressure.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan