MINNEAPOLIS — For the first time in five years, Minnesota's starting quarterback is different than the previous season opener. The good news for the Gophers is the guy they call the “Greek Rifle” got a head start.
Athan Kaliakmanis started five games in 2022 for program stalwart Tanner Morgan, a switch that was equal parts injury fill-in and on-the-job training.
“My confidence has always been there, no matter what has happened or what the situation has been like,” Kaliakmanis said. “But I think my teammates also helped me with that. Even when I wasn’t in or I wasn’t playing, I always acted like I was the guy, so I kind of practiced.”
The native of Antioch, Illinois, has three years of eligibility left following a redshirt freshman season with mixed results. After a daunting debut as a starter in a 45-17 defeat at Penn State, Kaliakmanis finished well against rival Wisconsin by going 19 for 29 for 319 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions for the program's highest passing output since 2019.
Without Morgan's leadership, running back Mohamed Ibrahim's production and center John Michael Schmitz's tenacity, the Gophers face plenty of questions about their offense.
The return of tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, named to the 10-player preseason Big Ten watch list, will be a big help. Wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell is back for a seventh year, too, after a torn ACL in his right knee. What's also clear is that the internal belief in Kaliakmanis runs deep.
“I've really seen him grow up a lot lately, especially this summer,” center Nathan Boe said. “He's been starting to lead with a lot of us older guys.”
The wild card that Kaliakmanis can play is a stronger arm than Morgan and a creative flair that was not part of his predecessor's game.
“He’s got a little of this moxie, this ‘X’ factor, that he can create, and I think that’s the difference," coach P.J. Fleck said. “He’s got to keep going and keep developing, but he sure is fun to coach.”
The Gophers start their season at home on Aug. 31 against Nebraska.
The backfield has an unfamiliar look without Ibrahim, Minnesota's all-time leading rusher. Western Michigan graduate transfer Sean Tyler is the favorite to be the featured ball carrier after totaling 1,138 yards and eight touchdowns from scrimmage in 2022. Redshirt freshman Zach Evans and true freshman Darius Taylor are well-regarded prospects. Bryce Williams is back for his sixth year in the program.
There will be just as much pressure on the offensive line to uphold the program's high standard for the position. Boe, another sixth-year player, has replaced the first team All-American Schmitz at center. Aireontae Ersery is back at left tackle after a promising debut, and Quinn Carroll has moved from right tackle to left guard. The other two spots have been up for grabs.
With three of their top five defensive backs from last season departed, Jordan Howden and Terell Smith to the NFL and Michael Dixon in a transfer to Rutgers, the secondary is in transition after the Gophers led the FBS with only eight passing touchdowns allowed.
Fifth-year safety Tyler Nubin, also on the preseason All-Big Ten list and the group's next pro prospect, will lead along with cornerback Justin Walley. Tre'Von Jones, a graduate transfer from Elon, is on track to take for another starting cornerback spot.
Fleck is suddenly tied for fourth in the Big Ten in head coach seniority with Indiana’s Tom Allen, who was also hired in 2017. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (1999), Penn State’s James Franklin (2014) and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh (2015) are the others who’ve been with their programs longer.
The culture that Fleck has overseen has prompted criticism from some corners. Forever known for his slogan slinging, Fleck's emphasis for the Gophers this year has been on poise, one of the traits they'll need to survive a tough schedule. The staff took the theme to the extreme by playing songs from the 1980s metal band Poison in the weight room.
“We better be a really poised football team. We better be a composed football team. We better be confident, and we better be balanced," Fleck said.
ESPN's mathematical formula pegged Minnesota's schedule as the second-hardest in the FBS behind Mississippi. Playing a conference game right away will be an added challenge for the Gophers, even against a Huskers team that has not posted a winning record since 2016.
The nonconference slate is no slouch, either, with home games against 2022 bowl teams Eastern Michigan (9-4 last season) and Louisiana-Lafayette (47-19 over the last five years) and a Sept. 16 matchup at North Carolina.
The East Division crossover games include a visit from Michigan on Oct. 7 and a trip to Ohio State on Nov. 18. Michigan State visits Oct. 28. Wisconsin also arrives on Nov. 25 to try to take back Paul Bunyan's Axe.