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Season review: Tracy Claeys, Minnesota show clear signs of progress

Minnesota played under a microscope all season, and the close inspection revealed that the program is healthy and still in great shape moving into the future with Tracy Claeys.

And after he officially shed the interim tag a year ago, it’s now safe to get rid of the unofficial one that followed him around this season in what seemed to be an extended audition. All he did was guide the Gophers to eight wins, a fifth consecutive appearance in the postseason and a campaign that was competitive all the way until the final weekend. It's clear that Claeys stamped his claim on the full-time job and silenced the skeptics.

Still, the work is not done for the Gophers. They are trying to take the next step on the recruiting trail, they came up short yet again with the Axe on the line against Wisconsin and a West Division title likely will remain just out of reach until they can find some success in the rivalry.

But there was clear progress. And the season report card reflects a productive year for the Gophers heading into the National Funding Holiday Bowl against Washington State.

Grading the offense: B

A triple-threat backfield led by Rodney Smith and featuring fellow tailback Shannon Brooks and quarterback Mitch Leidner was hard for any defense to slow down, and it helped the Gophers finish fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (30.3 points per game). Smith largely flew under the radar, but he was one of the league’s most productive backs and finished with 1,084 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. The passing game, though, continued to be a bit of a problem as Leidner threw more interceptions than touchdowns.

Grading the defense: B+

There is an element of luck to leading the Big Ten in fumble recoveries. But the way the Gophers pursued the football, aggressively tackled and stripped quarterbacks in the pocket all reflect solid defensive coaching, and adding eight interceptions to the 16 fumbles scooped up was a major part of the program’s success. The pass defense took a step back after losing so much talent from a year ago, but Minnesota's D still finished in the top half of the Big Ten in total defense -- putting the unit in some elite company.

Grading the special teams: A

Emmit Carpenter took over the kicking duties and was terrific in his debut as a full-time contributor for the Gophers, missing just twice in 23 attempts and knocking through a clutch field goal in the closing seconds to avoid an upset loss to Rutgers. Ryan Santoso continued to show off his big leg after moving to punter, averaging more than 40 yards per kick and pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line 25 times. And Smith took a kickoff back 94 yards for a score for Minnesota’s all-around solid group of specialists.

Grading the coaching: A

Claeys never seemed to let the outside pressure or speculation about his future faze him, but surely this season presented a challenge and wasn’t always comfortable for him. Considering the circumstances, the work he did in leading the Gophers through the transition last season after Jerry Kill stepped down and then throughout this season while winning games, dealing with injuries and suspensions and fighting for a prestigious bowl spot is even more impressive. He’s also proven he’s not afraid to think creatively or unconventionally, most notably with his approach to two-point conversions late in the game, which should bode well as Claeys looks for ways to help the Gophers move up the Big Ten ladder.

Player of the year: Rodney Smith

The redshirt sophomore already had flashed his talent before this season, but Smith truly broke out as one of the most dangerous backs in the Big Ten this fall with his 1,000-yard campaign. His numbers might be even more eye-popping if he weren't splitting the workload in the backfield with Brooks and Leidner, although that might also have helped keep him fresh to run through would-be blockers or find that higher gear like he did in unleashing on a 70-yard dash against Maryland. With more time to develop now, there’s no telling how high the ceiling might be for the gifted rusher.