Halfway home: What have we learned from the Gophers’ first six games?

After six games, the Gophers have reached the midway point of the season with a 3-3 record. An undefeated non-conference slate fueled optimism surrounding the team. However, the question was how they would respond in Big Ten play. Last year, the elevation of competition and physicality was simply too much for the team to handle.

In 2018, the Gophers have clearly improved offensively, but inconsistencies on defense are leading to explosive plays. Injuries to star running back Rodney Smith and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. have also impacted how the team schemes opponents. It’s clear the Gophers need to continue recruiting talent up front on both sides of ball, while adding team speed and playmaking ability in the secondary. Minnesota has shown flashes of progresses with a young roster. At the halfway mark of the season, we’ve learned a few things about this team.

Zack Annexstad is learning through experience

When true freshman walk-on quarterback Zack Annexstad earned the starting job in September, everyone knew the offense would experience growing pains. So far, Annexstad has completed 52.7 percent of his passes for 1,142 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. He has been gaining confidence in the intermediate passing game, but still struggles with deep ball arm strength and accuracy. Nearly all of Annexstad’s interceptions have occurred on passes of more than 20-plus yards. He has either simply placed the pass poorly with high trajectory or forced passes with pressure in his face.

The one major blemish in his skill-set has been deep ball accuracy and arm strength. It’s a feature currently holding back the Gophers’ offense. Minnesota’s rushing attack is progressing and they have to start taking advantage of play-action looks in the vertical passing game.

Annexstad must also continue improving his processing skills. There are still some situations where he locks into a specific read, especially on third down. Despite occasional inconsistencies, Annexstad has shown promise at a position the Gophers have been trying to develop for quite some time. His ability to hit open receivers at intermediate depths has helped the Minnesota offense establish a rhythm.

During the 2017 season, the Gophers’ quarterbacks passed for just 1,513 and nine touchdowns. At the midway point of 2018, Annexstad has nearly exceeded last year’s passing touchdown total and is approaching other key categories. He hasn’t been perfect, but the the team has shown signs of life through the air. Annexstad will continue to benefit from learning skills such as moving safeties, finding his reads and knowing when to move in the pocket.

A wide receiver talent injection

The biggest area of growth for the Gophers is at the wide receiver position. Freshmen Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell have provided a much-needed talent injection to the roster. Last year, Minnesota’s wide receivers tallied just 66 receptions for 1,115 yards and seven touchdowns. This season, the unit has already posted 83 receptions for 1,037 yards and nine scores. The talent upgrade has helped the Gophers create one of their most formidable wide receiver units in recent memory. Rashod Bateman is an explosive playmaker with blossoming technical skills and Chris Autman-Bell has fantastic hands in traffic.

The young duo has combined with veteran Tyler Johnson to create a dynamic trio. The ability of these three players has helped ease the transition for a young quarterback. It has also helped Minnesota become less reliant on the run and more balanced offensively. As Bateman and Autman-Bell continue to develop, the future at the skill spots is bright. The Gophers are creating a blueprint for recruiting and development at the position. With such a talent disparity in the past, wide receiver growth was a major area of emphasis for the Gophers’ staff.

Mistakes in the secondary

Over the past two games, the Gophers’ secondary has been making small alignment or technique mistakes that have resulted in big plays. This has been particularly evident in the backend with the loss of Antoine Winfield Jr. The coaching staff shifted cornerback Antonio Shenault to safety and he is learning a new position. In the Maryland game, true freshman Jordan Howden was also thrust into a big role after Winfield exited with an injury. The Gophers decided to move Shenault to safety as they searched for veteran experience. Injuries and shuffling in the secondary has really affected the Minnesota defense.

They have allowed 16 explosive plays over the past two games and part of this is directly related to mistakes by defensive backs. There have been occasional coverage breakdowns, misalignments and miscommunications that have led to big plays.

Many key components of Minnesota’s defense were built around Antoine Winfield Jr.’s versatility. Big plays are funneled back to him and he is reliable enough to be in the correct alignment. In addition, Minnesota’s secondary has also played more zone coverage, forcing teams to hit the soft spots and work their way up the field. Teams have taken advantage of this scheme decision by running intermediate routes to place a strain on various coverages. Not only that, but Minnesota hasn’t played much man-press on the outside. This starts with having the correct personnel and depth. Right now, it’s just a little thin.

The need for depth up front

The Gophers’ defensive line finally broke a long streak during Saturday’s 30-14 loss to Ohio State. Jerry Gibson became just the second true defensive lineman to record a sack. Minnesota’s pass rush continues to be a work in progress as they lack depth and intriguing player profiles. Several young defensive linemen have been developing such as redshirt freshman defensive ends Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe. Otomewo had two quarterback hurries in last week’s game and is starting to improve both physically and mentally. Mafe has been making similar strides as they work with pass rush specialist Marcus West. True freshman Jamal Teague will likely see additional action in future games, too. The Gophers need more defensive line depth, but P.J. Fleck said they are patching this hole through recruiting.

“That’s the position we’re in as we continue to add in recruiting in 2019 and 2020, that’s what we’re elevating,” Fleck said. “We’re racing to get to those guys being juniors and seniors, so you can finally have that where you’re just playing juniors and seniors every year at some point.”

The 2019 additions of Jason Bargy, Chris Daniels and DeAngelo Griffin are going to be important injections for the defensive line. The ability to add edge rushing talent, along with interior mass, will be critical to compete against physical Big Ten teams. Until then, the reps received by players like Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe will be valuable for future seasons.