2015 injuries could vault 2016 Gophers

Minnesota underrated with returning talent

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IOWA CITY — There wasn’t much left to Minnesota’s 2015 football carcass by season’s end.

Entering Minnesota’s bowl trip last December, 24 two-deep players lost 119 games because of injuries. At times the injury epidemic allowed Minnesota coaches to waffle between reasons and excuses, especially midseason onward. But there’s no doubt starters missing games played a significant role in the Gophers’ 6-7 campaign.

The Gophers’ starting defensive tackles hardly played in the team’s final four regular-season games. That includes competitive losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin. Damarius Travis and Jalen Myrick opened the season as starting defensive backs and combined to miss 14 games. Iowa City native Ace Rogers, a top reserve at defensive back, played in only two games. The offense wasn’t immune, either, with several offensive linemen out and original starting tight end Lincoln Plsek losing his senior season.

But a byproduct of 2015’s pain is 2016’s gain. Nearly every primary skill position player — save receiver K.J. Maye — returns. The secondary lost three NFL-caliber players but brings back last year’s wounded. Travis, who had 7.5 tackles against TCU in the opener, received a medical redshirt and is a team captain. Former Coach Jerry Kill, who retired midway through the season, called Travis “the most underrated player in the Big Ten” last September.

“I’ve thought all along that if we get the kids back from injury that we had a year ago along with our starters, it’s the best group of athletes that we’ve had,” Coach Tracy Claeys said. “They’re a great group to coach. If we stay healthy and make one more jump in the new system and get a few more things worked out on offense, then there’s no reason that we shouldn’t be in a position to have one of our better seasons with the kids we have returning.”

“We definitely have a lot of talent, there’s no question about that,” Travis said. “I think we have some spots to fill, but I don’t think it will be hard to fill those spots because we have talent.”

Among the returnees is sophomore running back Shannon Brooks, who became the first Gopher to rush for four touchdowns in a game since Laurence Maroney in 2005. Junior Brandon Lingen is one of the nation’s top returning tight ends. Quarterback Mitch Leidner, who has 16 wins in 29 career starts, was projected by ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay as a 2017 first-round draft pick. Leidner (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) has rushed for 1,129 yards and 23 touchdowns and passed for 5,118 yards and 28 touchdowns. Last year he exceeded 250 yards passing in four consecutive games (Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa).

Minnesota’s schedule could provide the wild card from wounded Big Ten West also-ran to divisional contender. Last season, the Gophers’ crossover games included Michigan and Ohio State. This year, the cross-divisional games include Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. While Michigan and Ohio State combined for a 22-4 record (13-3 in Big Ten), the other three were 14-23 overall (6-18 in Big Ten). Minnesota’s road opponents were 16-24 in league action last year and divisional champ Iowa travels to Minneapolis.

l Comments: (319) 339-3169; scott.dochterman@thegazette.com

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