Rotoworld’s Thor Nystrom sat down with the Minnesota Daily to share his ideas about the Gophers' upcoming football season.
Nystrom is the lead college football writer at Rotoworld, an NBC affiliate. He won the 2018 Fantasy Sports Writers Association College Sports Writer of the Year award. He also specializes in NFL draft coverage.
The Gophers appear to be headed in the right direction under coach P.J. Fleck, with winning the Axe and good recruiting. How do you feel about the Gophers for this upcoming season?
I would say tentatively optimistic. I think [Fleck] has succeeded on that metric [recruiting]. Faalele had offers from everywhere. Fleck somehow beats Alabama, Michigan; there’s all these other teams that had been offering him and [Fleck has] done that with some other kids, too. I’m impressed with that. I’m impressed with the development of some kids, specifically Rashod Bateman. They’re doing great work with him, some of that stuff they’re doing with the wide receivers that reminds me of Corey Davis at Western Michigan. I think [Chris Autman-Bell] is the next guy in the pipeline to keep an eye on. He’s got more athleticism than [Tyler] Johnson.
The one thing I don’t like is [Fleck] made mistakes with the quarterback position for two straight seasons. I love their running backs. They have a rock solid offensive line that is ascending. Obviously, the receiving corps, I don’t know if I will go as far as one of the best in the nation, but it is close, but I think top 10. Johnson and Bateman are both going to play in the NFL. I’m pretty confident that Autman-Bell is going to develop into a player than can play in the league too. The quarterback position is a little bit troubling to me. Right now, in my opinion, they have two replacement-level Big Ten quarterbacks. You would rank their quarterback position near the bottom in the Power 5. That’s my one concern about this squad is that they might underachieve because of poor quarterback play.
Zack Annexstad started last season as the starting QB, and after injury, Tanner Morgan never gave back the job. What are your thoughts on those two moving forward?
Quarterback is the Achilles' heel of this team. If this team misses a bowl game, I think it will probably get pinned on whatever of these two quarterbacks takes the most snaps. Maybe Fleck thinks one of these kids will blow up and he will have them for a couple more years, but I haven’t seen that. Morgan was okay. He had 9-to-6 touchdown to interception ratio. I guess going forward, I’m probably more confident in Morgan. Just because of what’s happened because of last camp, flip a coin. I think whoever wins will be on a very short leash. I don’t see how these guys ever become more than a game manager. I think that maybe Fleck felt if he signed a good grad transfer quarterback, he thought one of the two young guys would leave. This team, because the quarterbacks are so limited, I mean, they’re still a tough out, but I don’t think Jim Harbaugh is losing sleep over facing Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan.
The Gophers have a lot of running backs. How do you view their backfield?
"It’s really interesting, because my take on the running back position is sort of the opposite of the quarterback one, in that it’s almost a shame that [Rodney] Smith and [Shannon] Brooks are back because [Mohamed] Ibrahim is such a good prospect. Ibrahim to me is a legitimate NFL prospect. Smith will be signed as a UDFA [undrafted free agent]; obviously he’s a good back. Brooks has shown flashes in the past. You just have a lot of cooks in the kitchen there. Certainly, in terms of depth, their third and fourth running backs would start on some teams. I would probably say they have a top 20 running back unit [in the NCAA]. They could sustain two injuries at that position and be fine.
You’re high on wide receiver Tyler Johnson; how do you view him as a prospect?
I had Tyler Johnson sixth wide for receivers [for the 2020 draft class]. In terms of skill, he’s right up near the top. His ball skills are ridiculous; that’s his calling card. Almost any ball in his vicinity, he’s going to come down with it and sometimes just make ludicrous catches. The hands are awesome, the ball skills are awesome, contested situation really good. In terms of perception right now, what he’s struggling with is that athleticism is going to be an issue. It is a legitimate concern. The NFL is skewing toward smaller, more athletic receivers. If his numbers sort of stagnate this year and then he goes into the NFL combine this year and tests [poorly], that’s where you’ll see him fall down [in the draft]. The biggest question mark about Johnson’s profile, it doesn’t have to do necessarily with what we are going to see on the field this year. The burden of proof is going come when he goes to Indianapolis [for the NFL combine]. That’s where his stock is going to go up or down. Right now, I see him as a second-round prospect.
Carter Coughlin’s name is being thrown around as a draft prospect as well. How do you view him?
He’s obviously one the highest rated recruits that the Gophers have gotten, maybe ever. I think he’s a little under the radar right now. What he’s particularly awesome at, his special sauce is getting after the quarterback, which is very fortunate for him because the NFL fetishizes that. His pass rush productivity last year is not a fluke. He’s going to get drafted. He profiles as a 3-4 outside linebacker, edge rusher.
Any other prospects you view favorably?
[Antoine] Winfield Jr., that kid can play. He’s a great player. I think for sure [he] is going to play in the NFL. Thomas Barber, we’ll see how he does, but I think he’s on the NFL radar. We can toss Rodney Smith in there. Right now, I would have him as a UDFA. I think some team would bring him in and see if he has the chops to be a third-down back. He’s not an elite talent; I think he’s really solid. He’s absolutely going to get a shot.
What is the biggest weakness the Gophers have this year?
I think it’s definitely the quarterback position. If this team stinks, I think it’s because of the quarterback position. If they go into Fresno [State] week two and get upset, I think it’s probably because of the quarterback position. I think Gophers fans have to just cross their fingers and one of those quarterbacks just emerges and is good.
The Big Ten West appears to be bouncing back, with Scott Frost at Nebraska. There’s always Wisconsin and Northwestern. How do you see that side of the Big Ten shaping up?
For me, Iowa would be the front-runner. Nate Stanley is going to get drafted. On the offensive line they are awesome. It’s close between them, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Right now, tier 1 would be Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska; tier 2 you’d have Minnesota, Purdue, Northwestern and Illinois you would have in a tier of their own.
Blake Cashman went to the Jets; how do you feel about him going there under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams?
I think Blake Cashman was one of the biggest steals of the draft. I was surprised he fell to round five. He killed it in the testing; he had some black marks on his profile, being very small and lacking length. He tested with the second lowest wingspan in the modern era for linebackers in the combine. Because of Cashman’s history of shoulder problems, because of the small wingspan, because of the small frame, I think there are teams because of those three strikes they took him off their board. For me, it’s a slam dunk pick because I don’t see what the downside is. If nothing else, Blake Cashman is going to be a very good special teams’ player. Cashman is a sideline to sideline guy; he diagnoses very quickly and he gets to the ball very quickly. I thought he was a mid-second-round talent. I think it was [a] really good pick by the Jets.
Donnell Greene went undrafted and then signed with the Jaguars. How did you feel about him coming out a year early and then going undrafted?
For Donnell Greene, he’s got to be praying he latches onto a practice squad. I like his chances, mostly because of his frame. He can play both tackle and guard. He can move around a little bit for a big guy. I was surprised [he came out for the draft]. Hopefully, he gets onto a practice squad.