After strong 2018 finish, Gophers enter pivotal season

MINNEAPOLIS — The long-languishing football program at Minnesota has experienced plenty of potential breakthroughs over the last half-century, only to plateau or regress in the games and years that followed.

Well, the Gophers have arrived at another pivotal season.

With Paul Bunyan’s Axe returned to that often-empty trophy case thanks to a dominant victory at rival Wisconsin that highlighted a strong finish to 2018, they’ve established a benchmark for success under coach third-year coach P.J. Fleck. The natural next step would be to win their Big Ten West Division title.

“It’s hard not to look at the team we have right now and say that it’s not something special,” defensive end Carter Coughlin said. “We’ve got depth in a lot of different positions. We’ve got playmakers in a lot of different positions.”

The Gophers, using a roster with an FBS-high 58 players who were redshirt or true freshmen, blew out Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl after beating the Badgers for the first time since 2003.

“You try to keep that in the past and we know there’s a whole new season now, but we know as a team what we can do and what we’re capable of now,” linebacker Thomas Barber said.

One of the standout rookies from last year, running back Mohamed Ibrahim, will be joined by seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks in their returns from knee injuries. Wide receiver Tyler Johnson put the NFL on hold to come back for his senior season. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is on the field again after a broken foot sidelined him last fall. The overall talent level here is as high as it’s been in a long time.

“But just because we did something last year, that does not mean you’re going to do something this year,” Fleck said. “This year is not an extension of last year. That’s not how we look at it. This is a team that’s going to find its own ways to win.”

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