MINNEAPOLIS -- After a historic 11-2 season, the Gophers’ football team has to replace nine of its combined 22 starters on offense and defense in 2020. That includes a school-record five NFL draft picks and the program’s career all-purpose yardage leader.
Here is a look at seven key positions to watch when the 24th-ranked Gophers face No. 19 Michigan in the season opener Oct. 24 at TCF Bank Stadium:
Without Rodney Smith, who set the school’s all-purpose mark at 5,441 total yards, Mohamed Ibrahim will be the featured tailback. The redshirt junior has rushed for 1,764 yards but the next three options — Trey Potts, Cam Wiley and Bryce Williams — combined for only 35 carries and 107 rushing yards last year.
Only one of the U’s top three receivers is back after Tyler Johnson was drafted by the Buccaneers and Demetrius Douglas retired. Star Rashod Bateman opted back in after turning pro for six weeks, and Chris Autman-Bell will be the second WR option. The third spot is up for grabs, with Seth Green, Doug Emilien and Daniel Jackson in the running.
The Gophers have all five offensive line starters returning from a year ago — LT Sam Schlueter, LG Blaise Andries, C Connor Olson, RG Curtis Dunlap and RT Daniel Faalele — but the statuses of Faalele and Dunlap is in doubt, and P.J. Fleck isn’t sharing. If they don’t play, that makes center John Michael Schmitz, who started four games in 2019, the first man up.
Unanimous All-American Antoine Winfield Jr. left a canyon to fill at free safety this fall. The top potential replacement is four-star recruit Tyler Nubin, who featured on all four special team units last year. It will be a much bigger load after he had only six tackles to Winfield’s team-high 88. Other options are true freshman Michael Dixon and senior Calvin Swenson.
Carter Coughlin led the Gophers in tackles for lost yards the past three seasons but he’s with the New York Giants now. Stepping in for the Eden Prairie native is Hopkins’ Boye Mafe, who is considered an athletic freak with a 40-inch vertical leap. At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, he had three sacks last year and those numbers would need to at least double.
Departed seniors Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber tied for second with 66 tackles apiece last season, with top replacement Mariano Sori-Marin ninth on the list with 42. His role will be enormous with Braelen Oliver out injured. The next two candidates, James Gordon and and Donald Willis, had a combined three stops in 2019.
Chris Williamson was an unsung member of the defense last year, contributing 57 tackles, 2½ sacks, one interception and three pass breakups. There isn’t a clear top replacement. The options include senior Justus Harris, redshirt freshman Sol Brown and true freshman Jalen Glaze.