The top 10 Minnesota football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
1. QB Mitch Leidner, Sr.
Can he make the big jump up into the type of quarterback who can carry a team to a huge season by himself? He’s been around long enough to be the unquestioned leader, and he’s seen more than enough time over the last three years to not be fazed by anything thrown his way. At 6-4 and 237 pounds he’s got the size, and while he has a slightly clunky delivery, he can wing it around. Mostly, he’s got the dual-threat capabilities to take off at any time, and provide a pop when he needs the hard yard.
Last season he completed 60% of his passes for 2,701 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he threw 11 picks, and ran for a career-low 270 yards, but he had his big moments, bombing away for back-to-back 300-yard days against Nebraska and Michigan. He was terrific in the bowl win over Central Michigan, hitting 80% of his throws for 223 yards and a score with a pick, and at times throughout the season was deadly accurate. Now he has to be consistent.
2. RB Shannon Brooks, Soph.
The team’s leading rusher came up with 709 yards and seven scores with 17 catches for 167 yards in his true freshman season. He didn’t see time in the first three games, but when he was on, he was dominant running for 176 yards and a score on just 17 carries against Purdue, and he ran 17 times for 174 yards and three touchdowns against Illinois. At 6-0 and 206 pounds he’s got decent size, and he’s fast enough to be used as a kick returner at times.
3. OT Jonah Pirsig, Sr.
The line needs him to shine. A few star JUCO transfers are coming in to help fill in some of the gaps, but the 6-9, 316-pound Pirsig has to be a star at right tackle. Very smart and good enough to earn All-Big Ten honors both on the field and in the classroom, he’s a tough blocker to get around with a massive frame, and he can pound away when he’s able to get leverage on a defender. A rock up front, he started every game last year, and now he’s expected to be an anchor to rebuild around.
4. RB Rodney Smith, Soph.
The ultra-quick 5-11, 200-pounder got the call early on as a true freshman running for 670 yards and two scores and catching 16 passes for 124 yards. He broke out against Colorado State with 108 yards, and handled the ball 30 times in the tough win over Kent State, but he was mostly a part of the rotation the rest of the way. He’s got breakaway speed when he gets room to move, but he can also bring a little bit of pop.
5. TE Brandon Lingen, Jr.
The All-Big Ten performer is a nice blocker and can catch a little, too, making 33 grabs for 428 yards and three scores. Third on the team in receiving, he was a steady option throughout doing the most damage against Michigan with 111 yards to go along with six catches for 105 yards and a score against Iowa. He’ll be more than just a safety valve this year.
6. S Damarius Travis, Sr.
The 6-2, 208-pounder started out the season with ten tackles against TCU – coming off a 61-stop 2014 season with two picks and a fumble return – but he couldn’t get over a hamstring injury that cost him the rest of the season. When he’s 100% – which he appears to be now – he’s got the upside to be among the Big Ten’s best statistical defenders with the size to provide a good thump as a run defender, while also being just versatile enough to be a decent on pure passing downs. If he can stay in one piece, he’ll be the leader of a retooled defensive backfield.
7. LB Jack Lynn, Sr.
The team’s fourth-leading tackler, Lynn came up with 76 stops while doing a nice job of getting behind the line with 1.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. A 6-3, 238-pound outside defender, Lynn earned All-Big Ten recognition and should be even more prominent as a dangerous pass rusher – he’s got the skills to turn into more of a terror in the backfield. The quickness is there to be more of a playmaker in pass coverage, too.
8. OT Garrison Wright, Jr.
The JUCO transfer is expected to come in and be the instant answer at left tackle. At 6-4 and 318 pounds, he’s got the right frame and the right body type to work right away after doing a tremendous job as a road grader for the Butler CC running game. He can move, and he’s good as a pass protector, but he needs to be a rock right out of the gate.
9. WR Drew Wolitarsky, Sr.
The leading returning receiver, the 6-3, 218-pound veteran took over a starting role in the second half of last year and ended up catching 39 balls for 524 yards and three scores. Good throughout the year, he was a savior against Colorado State catching nine passes for 114 yards and a score, and he came up with seven grabs in the loss to Nebraska. He’s got the big-play ability to hit the occasional home run, and now with KJ Maye done, he might blow up into a statistical star as Mitch Leidner’s No. 1 target.
10. WR Rashad Still, Soph.
A 6-4, 202-pound dangerous target out of El Paso, he’s got the size and the talent to be a matchup problem now that he gets a bigger role in the attack. A good athlete who was able to step in right away, he caught 18 passes for 194 yards and three scores highlighted by a big play against Michigan.