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Gold and Black Illustrated, Vol 27, Digital 6

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Page 96 of 117

GOLD AND BLACK ILLUSTRATED VOLUME 27, ISSUE 6 97 tional Funding Holiday Bowl. Minnesota played the game short-handed after the university had suspended sever- al players following sexual assault allegations, although they were never charged. Claeys' public support of his players, who had threatened to boycott the bowl, might have contributed to his subsequent firing. But that's in the past now. This season, the Golden Gophers should again be led by their defense, a unit that finished fourth in the Big Ten in average yardage allowed (348.8) and fifth in points (22.1), both of which ranked 21st nationally. Minnesota racked up 37 sacks last season, and although pieces of the front seven departed, plenty of experience remains. All-Big Ten tackle Steven Richardson and line- backer Jon Celestin, one of three returning linebackers, are the standouts. "Minnesota still returns ample experience because of how much the defensive line and linebackers were depleted by injuries in recent seasons," Jessen-Howard said. Fleck likely will turn Minnesota into a more pass-ori- ented offense, as was the system OC Kirk Ciarrocca ran at Western Michigan. But the Gophers' current personnel lends itself to the ground game, as has been the case for years in the Twin Cities. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are an excellent combination, totaling more than 1,800 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. But who will play quarterback? The likely answer is sophomore Demry Croft, but he could be challenged by fifth-year senior Conor Rhoda, Mitch Leidner's backup last season. But Croft took the edge in the spring. "So he'll likely be the starter this fall," Jessen-Howard said. "He lacks experience but has a strong arm and is more mobile than Rhoda. I think he'll struggle at times like most inexperienced quarterbacks, but he should im- prove throughout the season and won't be asked to do too much with Minnesota's running game." Whoever the quarterback, he'll have very little return- ing production on the perimeter. Drew Wolitarsky, who had 66 of Minnesota's 181 catches and five of nine TD passes, has departed. The Gophers will be counting on junior Rashad Still, a 6-foot-5 junior who is the leading returnee, albeit with only 36 career catches, 18 in each of his first two seasons. Fleck might be able to have immediate success at Min- nesota, provided he can mesh his offensive style to the Gophers' traditions in Year 1. Certainly, he's gotten the attention of the community, as attendance for the spring game was up as are season ticket sales. "The kind of in-your-face energy isn't for everyone," Jessen-Howard said, "but that's genuinely P.J. Fleck and so far the fanbase has embraced it." — Kyle Charters

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