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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 84: Minnesota

At their best, Jerry Kill-coached teams will make you wish you’d just stayed at home. At their worst, Kill’s teams will have opponents lining up at the door waiting impatiently for their turn, as more than a few Big Ten teams did a season ago. So this we know after Kill’s uneven debut: Minnesota will be less like Northern Illinois, more like Southern Illinois. In DeKalb, Kill took a two-win team and quickly turned it into the MAC’s biggest bully, reaching three straight bowl games before leaping to the top spot with the Golden Gophers. In Carbondale, home of the Salukis, it took Kill one painful season and a second middling finish before the program began its dominating run through the Gateway Conference. More Southern, less Northern. For the efforts of this comparison, let’s leave Saginaw Valley State out of the conversation. But even that small-school stop merits a mention: Kill won there too. Kill’s won everywhere, if not from the start then down the road – and always, Kill has won big.

Conference
Big Ten, Legends

Location
Minneapolis, Minn.

Nickname
Golden Gophers

Returning starters
9 (4 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 92

2011 record
(3-9, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 98

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    at U.N.L.V.
  • Sept. 8
    New Hampshire
  • Sept. 15
    Western Mich.
  • Sept. 22
    Syracuse
  • Sept. 29
    at Iowa
  • Oct. 13
    Northwestern
  • Oct. 20
    at Wisconsin
  • Oct. 27
    Purdue
  • Nov. 3
    Michigan
  • Nov. 10
    at Illinois
  • Nov. 17
    at Nebraska
  • Nov. 24
    Michigan St.a

Last year’s prediction

You know what I’m not confident in? This year’s specific team: I don’t think it’s going to go swimmingly in Kill’s first season. Let’s start by touching on the most intangible reason why: Kill has to change a pillow-soft mentality, thanks to his predecessor, and I don’t think that’s an alteration that’s going to occur overnight, or in the span of one set of spring practices, summer workouts and fall play. Now, the more specific reasons: I love Gray’s athleticism but can’t shake the feeling he’s better suited for receiver, not quarterback; I wonder whether the offensive line can embrace being physical; and question marks dot the defense. So I like the hire but don’t really like this team, though the schedule should yield another win in the standings.

2011 recap

In a nutshell A strange team. A bad team, as most expected, but still: strange. The Gophers hung tight with U.S.C. in the season opener, losing by two points, even if the Trojans had yet to find their groove. A week later, the Gophers lost at home to New Mexico State. After beating Miami (Ohio), the Gophers lost at home to North Dakota State. Three ugly losses to start Big Ten play were followed by a win over Iowa – the program’s second straight over the Hawkeyes – and a very competitive loss to Michigan State. Losses to Wisconsin and Northwestern by a combined 44 points preceded a season-ending win over Illinois. Strange, but as in the team’s weak final record, perhaps the year’s up-and-down nature was to be expected: Minnesota was due to hit a snag in the transition to a new coaching staff.

High point The 22-21 win over Iowa on Oct. 29. It was the second consecutive win in the series for the Gophers, as noted; Minnesota beat Iowa only once from 2001-9, and hadn’t notched back-to-back wins since 1998-2000. The victory ushered in a new period of competitiveness for the Gophers, who went 2-3 from Oct. 29 through the end of the regular season.

Low point Minnesota probably owned the two worst losses by any B.C.S. conference team in the country. What makes the losses to New Mexico State and North Dakota State worse – though they were pretty bad without any extra help – were that both came at home. The defeat to New Mexico State was Minnesota’s second in four tries against the WAC, joining a 1991 loss to San Jose State. Sadly, the loss to North Dakota State was the program’s second in a row to the Bison, joining a loss in 2007, and the second in as many years to an F.C.S. team.

Tidbit Only one member of Kill’s coaching staff, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who went to Kansas State, attended a university that plays football on the B.C.S. conference level. Only four members of Minnesota’s entire football offices – the coaching and support staffs – went to a B.C.S. conference school: Claeys, graduate assistant Shawn Kostich (Minnesota), equipment manager Kyle Gergely (Purdue) and athletic trainer Ed Lochrie (Colorado). The team and program as a whole have a no-frills feel; perhaps that’s a result of the small-school roots of most of its leading cast.

Tidbit (road game edition) Minnesota is one of eight Big Ten teams that will play at least one true road game during non-conference play. The Gophers kick off their season at U.N.L.V. on Aug. 30. The Gophers are one of two teams in the league to face a non-B.C.S. conference program on the road, joining Indiana, which travels to Massachusetts – with the game being played in Foxborough – and Navy. The remaining six take trips bound to attract a little more national attention: Michigan and Purdue go to Notre Dame, Illinois to Arizona State, Nebraska to U.C.L.A., Northwestern to Syracuse, Penn State to Virginia and Wisconsin to Oregon State.

Tidbit (wire-to-wire edition) The win over Illinois was a nice way for the Gophers to end the season. It was also the program’s first win in more than three years that Minnesota led from start to finish. Each of Minnesota’s 11 wins from November of 2008 through the second-to-last game of 2011 involved bouncing back from at least one deficit; prior to Illinois, the Gophers’ last wire-to-wire win came in 17-6 victory over Purdue on Oct. 25, 2008.

Former players in the N.F.L.

11 OG Dominic Alford (Cleveland), DT Garrett Brown (San Diego), WR Eric Decker (Denver), FB Joe Hoese (Green Bay), DE Anthony Jacobs (Minnesota), TE Eric Lair (Green Bay), WR Logan Payne (New York Jets), CB Marcus Sherels (Minnesota), TE Matt Spaeth (Chicago), LB Nate Triplett (San Diego), QB Adam Weber (Denver).

Arbitrary top five list

Places to go for food near University of Minnesota
1. Al’s Breakfast.
2. Punch Pizza.
3. Loring Pasta Bar.
4. The Wienery.
5. Big Ten Restaurant and Bar.

Coaching

Jerry Kill (Southwestern College ’83), 3-9 after his first season at Minnesota. The foundation is being laid, and those expecting a smooth debut should have known otherwise. Kill did a wonderful job replacing Joe Novak at Northern Illinois, which had slipped to 2-10 in the last of 12 seasons he spent as the face of the N.I.U. program. Kill led the Huskies to a four-win improvement in his first season, a year that saw N.I.U. make significant strides on defense. Similar improvement came on offense, where the Huskies went from scoring 19.1 points per game in 2007 to 26.2 a year later. More of the same in 2009: largely under the radar, N.I.U. surpassed expectations in landing another bowl berth, giving the program two in as many years under Kill. Then came 2010, when Kill and the Huskies blew up – to ten wins, a program record for points in a season, a strong defense and, most of all, the type of mentality that will play well in the Big Ten. Kill was hired by Northern Illinois after seven seasons at Southern Illinois (2001-7), where he compiled a 55-32 career record. The Salukis, who reached the F.C.S. playoffs in each of his final five seasons, won three consecutive Gateway Conference championships (2003-5) and spent a total of 64 consecutive weeks ranked in the F.C.S. top 20 between 2003-7. Pretty heady stuff, especially when considering S.I.U. went 32-66 in the nine years prior to Kill’s arrival. Success wasn’t immediate for Kill either, as the team went 5-18 over his first two seasons, starting with a 1-10 finish in 2001. Prior to Southern Illinois, Kill served as the head coach at Emporia State (11-11 from 1999-2000) and Saginaw Valley State (38-14 from 1994-98). What does this mean? That Kill’s familiar with building from the ground up. That’ll come in handy.

Players to watch

Take all spring game results, whether positive or negative, with a shaker of salt. The offense isn’t nearly as bad as it looked during April’s scrimmage – nor is the defense as good as it looked, on the other hand. Despite a sour showing during the spring game, Minnesota’s offense is going to take a nice step forward this fall: Kill’s offenses always improve in year two, and the Gophers will be no exception. Beyond that fact, Minnesota also returns its starting quarterback and five offensive linemen who made at least three starts in 2011 – in this offense, everything revolves around quarterback play and consistent support up front.

It sounds nice. And it’s never a bad thing to return your starting quarterback, especially with the offense as a whole still learning the nuts and bolts of Kill’s system. But the simple truth: MarQueis Gray needs to get better. Not as an athlete, but as a quarterback. Gray’s athletic gifts make him a strong fit for this offense; he rushed for a team-best 966 yards and 6 scores last fall, averaging 99.2 yards per game over the second half of the season. As a runner, Kill couldn’t ask for much more out of his quarterback – besides asking for Chandler Harnish, which would be nice.

It’s as a passer that Gray remains a work in progress, which isn’t overly surprising. Remember that Gray, while technically Adam Weber’s backup as a freshman and sophomore, spent far more time at receiver than at quarterback. So he’s still learning on the fly, though I expect him to make a nice improvement – I hesitate to say night-and-day – as a thrower in 2012. Of course, Gray can only improve: he completed more than 50 percent of his attempts only twice in seven Big Ten games. The key is simply more snaps, more time in the film room and a greater familiarity of the system.

Is Gray going to be an all-conference quarterback? I don’t think so. But if healthy, he’s going to rush for 1,000 yards and make a noticeable improvement in the passing game. Minnesota would take the following line: 1,000 yards and 8 scores on the ground; 2,000 yards, 14 touchdowns and 8 or fewer interceptions while hitting on 55 percent of his attempts. The Gophers would take that and love it. Gray has the ability to get there; that’s probably a best-case scenario, but it’s a possibility.

It would help if the Gophers had a proven target in the passing game. Last fall, then-senior Da’Jon McKnight accounted for 38.1 percent of Minnesota’s receptions and 42.1 of the team’s receiving yards. Outside of Illinois’ A.J. Jenkins, no Big Ten receiver meant more to his team’s passing game. So the search is on for McKnight’s successor as Gray’s favorite target, a quest that should lead the Gophers to two returning contributors, sophomores Devin Crawford-Tufts (8 receptions for 156 yards) and Marcus Jones (9 for 142) — though Jones must recover from last season’s knee injury. If Jones is healthy, I would be surprised if this pair doesn’t start, joined by either senior Brandon Green (15 for 190) or junior Malcolm Mouton (14 for 174). The Gophers need more explosiveness in the passing game; Crawford-Tufts and Jones provide the best chance for a game-changing play. The receiver corps as a whole will only improve from week to week: Minnesota’s 11-receiver group features eight freshmen or sophomores, more than a handful of whom are in line for major snaps.

At various points last season, Minnesota started a true or redshirt freshman at every position up front but center. Hence the line’s struggles, and hence – via the line’s inconsistencies – the offensive struggles as a whole. Last year’s lumps will pay dividends in 2012, even if the Gophers must replace two starters. The line’s strength is at tackle, where junior Ed Olson returns for his third starting year on the left side and sophomore Jimmy Gjere on the right. Gjere started the first five games of 2011 before suffering a season-ending injury.

Sophomore Zac Epping, who started the last eight games of his rookie season at right guard, seems like a logical replacement for Ryan Wynn at center. The question inside is whether one of sophomores Tommy Olson and Caleb Bak – the latter a former walk-on – can handle Epping’s former role at guard. If not, look for redshirt freshman Josh Campion to get a strong look at the position. As at receiver, this is a young group: Ed Olson and Zach Mottla are the only juniors poised to factor into the two-deep.

Unlike on the offensive side of the ball, last year’s defense did have its fair share of senior leadership. Not that it showed. The Gophers sandwiched the season with two nice games, against U.S.C. and Illinois; the meat of the sandwich were 10 largely horrific performances, from New Mexico State through Northwestern. While the Gophers are eyeing a defensive improvement to match the projected uptick on offense, the lost starters include both tackles, a middle linebacker, the top three safeties and a cornerback. In short, Clayes and Kill can’t merely rely on increased experienced – Minnesota needs to get better, and fast, while breaking in a largely new cast.

Junior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman looks the part. Come September, it’s time for Hageman to translate his physical gifts into a breakthrough season. A backup last fall to Anthony Jacobs, Hageman (13 tackles) earned enough of a taste of Big Ten football to smooth his path into the starting lineup. And he’s desperately needed inside, especially when given that Minnesota brings back three ends with starting experience – so Hageman could be useful in certain packages outside, but not vital. JUCO transfer Roland Johnson should get first crack at replacing Brandon Kirksey at nose tackle, though it’s hard to predict whether he’ll be able to make an immediate impact.

Depth comes from sophomore Cameron Botticelli, junior Eric Jacques and, potentially, two incoming freshmen. Can any lineman other than Johnson play on the nose? The Gophers can’t be even sure that Johnson can handle the job, so the position is a concern heading into the fall. Botticelli is a hard-charging producer, but he’s probably too tall to stand up against multiple blockers in the middle of the line. The Gophers really need a big year out of Hageman to solidify the run defense.

It’s a better situation at end. After starting all 12 games last fall, sophomore Ben Perry (15 tackles, 2.5 for loss) will be much improved in his second season. A second sophomore, Michael Amaefula (17 tackles), will push senior D.L. Wilhite (16 tackles, 3.0 sacks) for the starting role on the opposite side. Even if he doesn’t start, Wilhite is too valuable as a pass rusher to not see extensive snaps on third down. Another young end who could factor into the mix on passing downs is redshirt freshman Thieren Cockran. And Minnesota needs the help in the pass rush: the Gophers had 19 sacks as a team last fall, with a good portion coming from the back seven.

The Gophers must replace the late Gary Tinsley, the team’s second-leading tackler, at middle linebacker; sadly, Tinsley – who had a great finish to his college career, both on and off the field – died due to a condition called cardiomegaly, an enlargement of the heart, in early April. The Gophers have two options in the middle. One is to move senior Mike Rallis (83 tackles) inside. A second would be to promote Tinsley’s understudy, senior Ryan Grant. Rallis is the better option; he has the size to move inside and the experience to flourish, while Grant’s a bit too untested to hand the starting job. Not that promoting Grant doesn’t have its appeal; this would allow Minnesota to keep Rallis and senior Keanon Cooper (77 tackles) at their homes on the outside, which isn’t a terrible idea. If Rallis does take over at middle linebacker, look for junior James Manuel, a three-game starter as a freshman who took snaps at safety last fall, to take over his old spot on the outside.

Huge news for Minnesota: Troy Stoudermire landed a sixth season of eligibility from the N.C.A.A., allowing him to suit up for one final year with the Gophers. His return provides an enormous boost to an impotent secondary, one that ran off the rails following Stoudermire’s season-ending injury four games into the year. As it was, his two interceptions accounted for half of the Gophers’ total as a team; beyond solidifying the cornerback position, Stoudermire lends a much-needed opportunistic mentality to a secondary that simply must make things more difficult on opposing quarterbacks.

In a way, last year’s injury should make him a better player: Stoudermire, a converted receiver, can put last season’s experience – both over his four games in the lineup and the eight spent watching as a bystander – to good use in his final season. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be joined at cornerback by JUCO transfer Martez Shabazz. That would allow Minnesota to move Brock Vereen (67 tackles) out to safety, where he’ll be joined in the starting lineup by sophomore Derrick Wells.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running back Minnesota needs more oomph from its running game – more flash, more big plays, more explosiveness. I’m not sure if sophomore Donnell Kirkwood (229 yards, 3.6 yards per carry) can be the guy the Gophers need, even if he is the most experienced returning back, and that always counts for something. In a perfect world, perhaps, Kirkwood could serve as the Gophers’ bigger, short-yardage back while a speedier option took over lead back duties. Perhaps that back is JUCO transfer James Gillum, who was on campus for spring drills. That helped him pick up the offense, as did the fact that he played in a spread system on the JUCO ranks.

The contenders for the role of Minnesota’s main back are Kirkwood, Gillum, true freshman Rodrick Williams – another bigger back; he arrives over the summer – and sophomores David Cobb and Devon Wright. With all due respect to the returning backs and the true freshman, the Gophers need Gillum to be ready. Kirkwood can still play, and will play in certain packages, but he’s not the quick-burst runner who can keep defenses honest, giving Gray more room to operate. Gillum’s ceiling in this offense is higher. Hopefully, he can give the Gophers a nice second option in the running game.

Game(s) to watch

Minnesota can reach bowl play if it goes undefeated during non-conference play. Starting 2-0 shouldn’t be a problem, and that the games are at home will help the Gophers against Western Michigan and Syracuse. The goal should be to head into Big Ten action at 4-0 and then make a run at teams like Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois, with only the latter of the three games coming on the road. This team will have a hard time beating any of the other opponents on the schedule; Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska are on the road while Michigan and Michigan State come to Minneapolis. With Minnesota’s talent and this conference schedule, there’s little hope for a bowl berth without a 4-0 mark to open September.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s a distinct lack of talent on this team, particularly when compared to the rest of the Big Ten – outside of Indiana, that is. For all of his supposed gifts on the recruiting trail, Tim Brewster certainly didn’t leave Kill with anything close to a stacked deck. The dearth of overall talent is exacerbated by the team’s continuous learning curve in Kill’s system; more manageable growing pains will continue in 2012. It’s important to note that the Gophers, as a team, have made significant strides since this time a year ago. Where will you see improvement? At quarterback, where Gray will be far more polished as a second-year starter. In the running game as a whole, should Gillum provide a spark of big-play ability. In the passing game, should Gray find another favorite target and develop as a passer, as expected. In the secondary – though it’ll be hard for the Gophers to fare as poorly against the pass as they did a season ago. Even along the defensive line, should Hageman play up to his potential and Johnson provide some heft at nose tackle. Most of all, I think this is a tougher team, one that is beginning to understand what kind of football is expected of it by a coaching staff with a clear system – above all else, be physical – and a consistent track record of results. Given that the Gophers ended last season well and are a better team in 2012, could this team squeeze into bowl play? I can see it happening. More likely, however, and as at Southern Illinois, Minnesota takes a step forward this fall before making its bowl run 12 months down the road. My prediction is no more than five wins, with no more than two coming during Big Ten play. Two wins after September would be outstanding, in fact.

Dream season Perfect to start, then 5-0 after beating Iowa, then 6-0 after beating Northwestern. Minnesota collapses down the stretch in Brewster-like fashion, but it’s all good: Kill brings the Gophers into the postseason at 8-4, which would be one heck of an achievement.

Nightmare season Wins over U.N.L.V. and New Hampshire are followed by loss after loss after loss after loss… Two months later, the Gophers drop one win off their 2010 total, finishing 2-10 and at the bottom of the Big Ten.

In case you were wondering

Where do Minnesota fans congregate? Start with Gopher Hole, the hardest-working Minnesota fan site on the Web, as well as the best place to find Gopher-related sports chatter. You can find coverage of Minnesota recruiting at Golden Sports and Gopher Illustrated. It’s hard to make your mark in the blog-heavy Big Ten, but The Daily Gopher is one of the top blogs in the conference.

Minnesota’s all-name nominee OG Isaac Hayes.

Word Count

Through 41 teams 144,497.

Up Next

Who is No. 83? Classified biologically, tomorrow’s program’s mascot belongs to the same kingdom as the kauri, the same order as myrrh and the same family as the gas-plant.

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Comments

  1. Bobak says:

    How old is that restaurant list? Punch Pizza’s both nationally recognized and incredibly delicious. And no Loring Pasta Bar? I prefer your football analysis ;-)

    Paul: I must confess that unlike most top five lists, most of the list came from Internet research. Except for Al’s Breakfast and The Wienery. I’ve never been to the other spots. So Punch Pizza and Loring Pasta Bar? Are both in Dinkytown? I think I should update the list.

  2. Bobak says:

    Also: The next team are the Syracuse Orange. It must have been a tough call to determine whether the Gophers were better or worse.

    (I think Obento-ya would also qualify as near the U)

  3. Eksynyt says:

    Oregon State is way to high already.

  4. niusfactuary says:

    Let’s set the record straight about the whole “Jerry Kill took a 2-10 NIU team and turned it into the MAC’s biggest bully.” sentence. That team suffered from a ton of injuries, and the previous 2 seasons the team had won 7 games. NIU has consistently been one of the MACs best teams over the last 10 years, so to claim he was the savior of this team and turned it around is quite preposterous. This coming season for NIU will be the first season without the Joe Novak recruited talent, so we’ll finally get a better idea of what kind of a recruiter Jerry Kill was.

    Paul: I’d love to go into more detail about every point in every preview, but as you might think, it’s just not feasible to delve into the nitty gritty on every single sentence. So at times, yes, a line like that is included just on face value so as to make a larger point. I think everyone who reads this site knows that Kill didn’t inherit an Eastern Michigan-like situation in DeKalb.

  5. Robert says:

    Jerry Kill admitted that Southern Illinois was a bigger turnaround job than was Northern Illinois. But he did take a team that had won 2 games the previous year and by year 3, the team won 10 games. Winning 7 games the previous 2 years before the 2007 2-win season didn’t exactly make NIU a superpower. NIU had an won 11 games last year, so Kill left Dave Doreen with plenty to work with.

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