When the Gophers football team last took the field at Huntington Bank Stadium, players were jumping around with exuberance following a 23-13 victory over Wisconsin, a field-storming triumph that rubbed their archrivals' noses in the result and stood out as the top highlight of a 9-4 season.
In one month, the Gophers will be back at the Bank for the Sept. 1 season opener against New Mexico State with the hope of improving on a 2021 showing that they capped with an 18-6 victory over West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. Coach P.J. Fleck's team has grander aspirations than playing in a late December bowl — namely winning the Big Ten West Division title and securing a spot in the conference championship game.
The work toward those goals resumes Monday with the start of training camp, and the Gophers are eager to show how the program has matured in Fleck's sixth season in charge.
"That's what I'm really excited about,'' Fleck said. "When you look across the board, there's a lot of talent at a lot of positions. It's just going to be who's going to be the guy who wins the job.''
The Gophers' hopes for contending for the West title start with the "Encore Four,'' a quartet of sixth-year seniors on offense who stuck around for one more kick at the collegiate can. Quarterback Tanner Morgan, running back Mohamed Ibrahim, center John Michael Schmitz and wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell have been in the program since 2017.
Morgan, of course, is the key to the offense. Entering his fifth year as starter, he'll try to rebound from a season in which the passing game sputtered in losses to Bowling Green and Illinois. Helping in that task will be Kirk Ciarrocca, who's back as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after two years away. Under Ciarrocca, Morgan passed for single-season school records of 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2019, stats bolstered by the presence of future NFL receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman.
Autman-Bell is the clear leader of the wide receiver corps. He was limited last season because of an ankle injury suffered during training camp but still led the team in receptions (36), yards (506) and TD catches (six).
Fleck, though, sees much more with this group. "We have five wide receivers who all have the ability and the possibility to play at the next level,'' he said.
Dylan Wright is one of them. The 6-3, 210-pound transfer from Texas A&M averaged 20.3 yards per catch last season, and Fleck has raved about his offseason work.
Ibrahim, the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year, is back after tearing his left Achilles' tendon in the 2021 opener against Ohio State. He's joined by Trey Potts, who was lost for the season because of an undisclosed injury that required a six-day hospital stay. Both will take contact during training camp.
Schmitz, an All-America candidate, is the lone returning starter on the offensive line, but Fleck doesn't seem worried about the unit. He calls left tackle Aireontae Ersery potentially the best lineman he's had. A key competition will be at right tackle, where Martes Lewis, JJ Guedet and Notre Dame transfer Quinn Carroll will battle. "We might be more athletic up front than we were last year,'' Fleck said.
Expect to see a lot of tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, a 6-7, 270-pounder who had 23 receptions last year.
Holes to fill on defense
The Gophers defense, which ranked third nationally in fewest yards allowed last year, suffered some big losses on the line with ends Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo selected in the NFL draft, and mainstays Micah Dew-Treadway and Nyles Pinckney exhausting their eligibility. Thomas Rush had a breakthrough season at end, while Trill Carter provided strength in the interior, and they'll be called upon to lead a young group.
At linebacker, the Gophers must replace Jack Gibbens, their leading tackler last season, while Mariano Sori-Marin returns for his senior season. The trio of Josh Aune, Cody Lindenberg and Braelen Oliver will compete for the spot opposite Sori-Marin.
In the secondary, seniors Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden provide a solid duo at safety, while sophomore Justin Walley is a star in the making at cornerback. Transfers Ryan Stapp (Abilene Christian) and Beanie Bishop (Western Kentucky) should play prominent roles, too.
"It seems like just yesterday that we were just finishing up the Guaranteed Rate Bowl," Nubin said. "It comes around quick, but you love it. This is what you signed up for, this what you love to do."