Seven Gophers players make Phil Steele's preseason All-Big Ten teams
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Preseason college football projections are already starting to roll in as the countdown until teams open training camp in August continues.
Well-respected college football prognosticator Phil Steele recently chimed in, releasing his preseason All-Big Ten teams.
No Gophers players made Steele's first team offense or defense, but seven made the cut on his second, third and fourth teams.
It's a minor sign of Minnesota's gradual rise back to relevance in the Big Ten. The Gophers had only three players on Steele's 2013 preseason teams (Ra'Shede Hageman - first team, Zac Epping - fourth team, Derrick Wells - fourth team).
Offensive lineman Zac Epping and defensive end Theiren Cockran are Minnesota's headliners on Steele's latest list, both being named to the second team.
Tight end Maxx Williams and running back David Cobb landed on the third team offense, while kick returner Marcus Jones ended up on the third team special teams crew. Cornerback Eric Murray and right tackle Josh Campion rounded out the list on the fourth team.
Epping is rightfully garnering more attention as a cornerstone on the Gophers' strengthening O-line. The redshirt senior, who earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors last season, has started 34 straight games for the Gophers since his freshman year. With the versatility to play multiple positions across the O-line, Epping has become one of Minnesota's most indispensable players.
Cockran's impact on the Gophers defensive line tended to get overshadowed at times last season, with much of the attention being placed on Hageman. However, Cockran quietly put together an impressive sophomore campaign. He ranked third in the Big Ten in sacks (8) and finished with 30 tackles. With Hageman gone, the "U" defense will rely even more on quality production from Cockran.
The inclusion of Williams is another indication of the building expectations for the redshirt sophomore. Williams was Minnesota' top performing freshman in 2013, leading the team in receiving yards (417) and hauling in five touchdowns.
Cobb was an obvious choice for one of the four teams after rushing for 1,202 yards last season, the 12th-most in program history. The question is can Cobb produce an equally strong encore performance? He'll have plenty of competition in the Gophers backfield with Berkley Edwards, Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood gunning for playing time as well.
Jones, back after two seasons cut short by knee injuries, was Minnesota primary kick returner last year. While he cooled off in the latter half of the season, Jones racked up 622 return yards and one touchdown. Jones will have to prove he can provide consistent production if he hopes to maintain his return spot.
An argument could be made that Campion deserved to be a bit higher in the rankings. Like Epping, Campion has been a constant presence for Minnesota's offensive line for the past two seasons, having started every game as a freshman and sophomore. Campion will be a critical piece in Minnesota's bid at making significant improvements offensively in the year ahead.
Steele's selection of Murray is an intriguing one. Murray is one of the most buzzed about players by the Gophers coaching staff. The junior cornerback had 10 pass breakups in 2013, which ranks 11th all-time for Minnesota. Murray didn't get much widespread attention for his strong season, but that could change dramatically this year.