MINNEAPOLIS - The Gophers head to Big Ten media days in Chicago on Thursday with plenty to be excited about going into the 2019 football season.
An overwhelming majority of the roster returns, the schedule looks favorable - up until November - and position battles seem to have better depth and some experience to choose from.
Here are six things to keep in mind when head coach P.J. Fleck takes the podium at the Hilton Chicago at 1 p.m. Thursday, July 18:Returning players
The Gophers have 17 returning starters from the 2018 season, the fourth-highest total in the Big Ten. But the company they keep isn’t exactly the class of the conference.
After a 5-7 season, Indiana leads the way with 20 returning starters, including some that split time in 2018. Michigan State has 19, and llinois, after a 4-8 year, has 18 returnees.
A better indication of what’s coming back is the amount of returning production, per SB Nation’s number crunching in January.
The Gophers lead the West with a total of 78 percent, which is based on formulas that take in a wide range of stats. Illinois is second at 75 percent, while Wisconsin is third at 73, but this was compiled before Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State.
Iowa has 65 percent, Northwestern 62, Nebraska 57 and Purdue is last at 54.Quarterback
For a third straight fall, Fleck doesn’t have a clear-cut starting QB going into camp, but for the first time he has two players with experience in Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad.
Morgan had a 146.7 rating and went 4-2 as a starter after taking over once Annexstad was sidelined with an internal midsection injury in October. Annexstad had a 117.7 rating and was 3-4 as a starter.
If history is any guide, Fleck will wait well beyond media days and go into the dog days of camp before naming a starter. He named Annexstad the starter in that spot a year ago.Defensive tackle
The U lost its top three D-tackles from 2018 - O.J. Smith, Gary Moore and Royal Silver - and will count on sophomore Jamaal Teague and Notre Dame transfer Micah Dew-Treadway to step up.
Teague had his redshirt pulled last year and finished with eight tackles, two tackles for lost yards and a sack in seven games. Dew-Treadway played sparingly for the Fighting Irish in four seasons, but showed himself to be way ahead of junior college transfer Keonte Schad and freshman Rashad Cheney in spring drills.Offensive tackle
The departure of senior left tackle Donnell Greene was glaring in spring practices, meaning Fleck and offensive line coach Brian Callahan will need to find a capable replacement fast.
Sam Schlueter started the beginning of last season at right tackle and struggled against Iowa before being benched. He has shown some improvement and is expected to compete with junior college transfer Jason Dickson, who sat out last season.Sizing up crossovers
Among the seven West division programs, the Gophers have arguably the easiest trio of crossover games against East opponents in 2019.
Minnesota will face Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers, while avoiding the top three projected teams out of the East: Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State.
Purdue is the only other West team to avoid those three power programs; the Boilermakers get Penn State, Maryland and Indiana. Nebraska has a somewhat easier slate with Indiana and Maryland surrounding a tough matchup with Ohio State.
The West’s toughest crossover schedule goes to Wisconsin, which must face Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. The runner-up for toughest slate is Iowa, which plays Michigan and Penn State, but also gets projected basement dweller Rutgers.November tests
The Gophers will need to start strong with a difficult four-pack of games in November against Penn State, road trips to Iowa and Northwestern, then the regular-season finale at home against Wisconsin.
Minnesota has three nonconference games against programs outside the Power Five conferences (South Dakota State of FCS, at Fresno State and Georgia Southern) in August and September.
After a bye, the Gophers then face Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland in September and October. All five of those programs had losing records in 2018.