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Gold and Black Illustrated, Vol 26, Digital 6

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Page 99 of 110

GOLD AND BLACK ILLUSTRATED VOLUME 26, ISSUE 6 98 T racy Claeys is the unquestioned leader of Minnesota's program now, and he wasted little time setting big goals for his team. In the spring, he raved how this was the best team the Gophers have had since he's been with the program — he was Jerry Kill's defensive coordinator — and how he envisions as many as eight to 10 victories this season. Minnesota hasn't won at least nine games since 2003. But with the way the schedule breaks down, maybe such goals aren't that lofty. "The Gophers had to play TCU last year and this fall won't play any top-50 oppo- nents in non-conference play. The cross- over schedule eases up, too," said Matt Jessen-Howard, of GopherIllustrated. com, the Rivals site that covers Minneso- ta. "Last year, the Gophers played Michi- gan and Ohio State and this year take on Rutgers and Maryland. "A much easier schedule will help Claeys hit that eight-win mark. There are few, if any, games that fans look at and mark down as a loss, so 10 (wins) is achievable but will be tough in a Big Ten West that will be balanced and deep." All of that assumes Mitch Leidner rais- es his level of play, leading the offense to do the same. Last season, Minnesota was 13th in the Big Ten in scoring offense, averaging only 22.5 points, and was 12th in total of- fense (358.9 yards per game). Leidner, who will be a third-year start- er at quarterback, threw for 2,701 yards with 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season. The team brought in a pass- ing game/quarterback consultant to work on Leidner's mechanics, and assistant QB coach and former Gopher Adam Weber worked with Leidner as well. Minnesota is hoping that translates to more produc- tion, especially working in a new offense under Jay Johnson that'll feature some pistol sets, a new blocking scheme and an almost entirely new playbook. "Leidner is strong, mobile, tough and a leader. He has shown he can make all types of throws, and the key for him now is just consistency," Jessen-Howard said. It'd help if he got some help. And that'd appear to be a good possibility with the sophomore duo of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith in the backfield. Brooks had a team-high 709 yards rushing with seven TDs including a breakout performance Oct. 10 against Purdue with 176 yards on 17 carries and a TD. Smith, who had more carries, added 670 yards and two rushing scores. They're hoping they can be Minnesota's first pair of 1,000- yard rushers since 2005. "Both could be 1,000-yard rushers if they weren't splitting carries with one an- other," Jessen-Howard said. "Brooks has a nice mix of straight-line speed, agility and strength. He runs angry and is more powerful than his size suggests. Smith is very quick and makes great cuts. Brooks runs much like a poor man's Marshawn Lynch and Smith runs like a poor man's David Cobb. They complement each other nicely." The defense had some key losses — including three players to the NFL — but "should be as talented or nearly as talent- ed as last year," Jessen-Howard said. It'll also be under a new coordinator as Claeys relinquished those duties when he assumed the head coach role, and defen- sive backs coach Jay Sawvel is stepping into the DC role. He experimented with a 3-4 look during the spring to take ad- vantage of a deep pool of linebackers, in- cluding all-league players Cody Poock and Jack Lynn. The back half of the defense has more questions. Minnesota ranked 11th in the nation in passing defense last season, al- lowing only 179.5 passing yards per game, but it's replacing two starters. It'll help to get safety Damarius Travis back — he missed all of last season with an injury — and have a healthy Jalen Myrick, who had the lowest opponent passer rating before getting hurt. But Sawvel has built a rep- utation for molding young talent, so he's expected to do the same this season to help solidify the secondary. — Stacy Clardie Minnesota Mitch Leidner hopes to be improved in his third year as a starting QB after working with a quar- terback consultant.

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