P.J. Fleck’s had quite the offseason, and nothing would satisfy him more than getting to the season. This year’s Minnesota Golden Gophers team figures to be young, but these 10 returning players show that the future is bright.
Minnesota Golden Gophers Top 10 Returners in 2023
Analyzing the returning players at every school is a difficult task in the transfer portal area. As such, we’ve included transfer-portal athletes that were included on each team’s roster page to open fall camp in addition to the rostered players from last year.
1) Brevyn Spann-Ford, TE
A name that’s rising in the NFL circles already, Brevyn Spann-Ford returns to Minnesota prepped for a big year. At 6’7″ and 270 pounds, his size jumps out right away.
A big frame provides his quarterback with a huge target, but that’s not the only thing he can do.
Spann-Ford’s athleticism continues to fly under the radar, even after he hurdled a Penn State defender last year. There are things that 270-pound men shouldn’t be able to do, but he does it with ease. If he builds upon his 2022 season, the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft becomes a reality.
2) Tyler Nubin, S
Fleck and his staff have done a great job of finding culture fits in the secondary and elevating them into NFL players. Tyler Nubin is next in line for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and the secondary has a ton of potential to be a solid unit.
Minnesota finished 15th against the pass last year, and Nubin played a huge role in that thanks to his four interceptions. He also has the size that NFL teams want, so it’s easy to see why he has a bright future.
3) Chris Autman-Bell, WR
If healthy, Chris Autman-Bell can be a force for the Golden Gophers’ offense, but if not, I’m sure he has another year of eligibility tucked away somewhere. All jokes aside, a healthy Autman-Bell gives Minnesota a veteran who can help get all of the new faces up to speed.
Before his injury last year, he averaged 19.5 yards per catch, so his explosiveness was missed. The schedule seems daunting, but Minnesota’s offense will test teams this year, even if they’re the underdog.
Guys like Autman-Bell can show the young players how to compete and what it takes to be an explosive weapon.
4) Justin Walley, CB
At one point, Justin Walley received a lot of love from the NFL circles, and the buzz still remains. He picked off three passes last year for the Golden Gophers’ defense, and Minnesota fans shouldn’t be surprised.
Justin’s brother, Jaden, starts for Mississippi State as a wide receiver and even earned Freshman All-American honors from The Athletic in 2020. So you know there were some serious battles in the backyard and in practice between these two.
That also means Walley won’t be worried about the matchups he’ll face on a weekly basis in the Big Ten.
5) Athan Kaliakmanis, QB
Tanner Morgan’s longevity rivaled Chris Autman-Bell’s for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and it will seem weird that someone else takes the reins of the offense. Athan Kaliakmanis found his services at quarterback were needed earlier than expected last year, but he sent a message that he’s ready for the challenge.
Sure, there were growing pains along with it, but this throw against Penn State and his performance against Wisconsin show a bright future.
The “Greek Rifle” can make plenty of throws all over the field, and now he gets his chance to shine. Morgan provided stability, but Kaliakmanis’ ceiling could take the Gophers to new heights.
6) Cody Lindenberg, LB
Minnesota’s linebackers fly under the radar in college football, and Cody Lindenberg continues that tradition. He challenged Mariano Sori-Marin for the leading tackler and enters the 2023 season as a leader for the defense.
If you had to describe the defense using one player, Lindenberg would be your example. They might not be a well-known unit, but they can shut opposing teams down on a frequent basis.
7) Elijah Spencer, WR
If you’re having a tough time recognizing the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ offense, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The new world involving the transfer portal makes for facelifts for certain teams.
While Minnesota returns a couple of key playmakers, the receivers look very different.
Elijah Spencer comes to Minnesota from Charlotte after a career season, and he’s hoping to make the transition to the Power Five level a seamless one. The receiver room got crowded even with multiple departures, and the staff really likes what Spencer can do in this offense.
8) Daniel Jackson, WR
Another returner at wide receiver, Daniel Jackson, led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns last season. He took steps forward in 2020 and 2021, but last year was a breakthrough season for him.
He’ll catch passes from a new quarterback this year, but he returns 74 catches with him to ease some of those concerns.
9) Sean Tyler, RB
Minnesota’s tradition of a strong rushing attack continues under Fleck, though they didn’t expect the transfer portal to help them. Minnesota has lost multiple running backs to the NFL and the portal in the last few years, but they’ve managed to recruit more talent to replace those players.
Sean Tyler originally committed to Oklahoma State when he left Western Michigan but ultimately decided to join former Broncos head coach Fleck up north. Tyler, Bryce Williams, and Zach Evans give the Gophers a solid trio of backs, with Tyler’s experience and abilities giving him a slight edge for now.
10) Corey Crooms Jr., WR
The Western Michigan pipeline continues with Tyler’s teammate, Corey Crooms Jr.. The former Bronco produced 115 catches for 1,766 yards and 12 touchdowns there, with most of it coming in the last two seasons.
He brings big-play potential to the offense, but he can also be a reliable pass catcher should Minnesota need to pick up first downs in key situations.