Would you believe it, the Gophers actually kept their coach last year.
Not that Jerry Kill isn’t a good coach, it just seems like we open a lot of these by talking about a coaching change. The Head Gopher (seriously, just look at him) is actually well-known for his ability to dig through the dirt and turn programs around.
(There will be many Gopher-related jokes throughout. Sorrynotsorry.)
Kill inherited some good fortune in 2011, namely do-anything quarterback MarQueis Gray. But recruiting has not been a strength of Kill’s (not that it’s ever easy with juggernauts Ohio State and Michigan in the league). Which begs the question: what exactly is the ceiling for the Minnesota Gophers, winners of seven national titles (most recently in 1960) and eighteen Big Ten titles (most recently in 1967)?
Bowl eligibility, for one. Minnesota plays in the Legends/West division and with Illinois, Iowa, and Purdue in one’s division, it’s reasonable to expect at least three conference wins (wins against Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin might be a little harder to come by). And certainly, Minnesota achieved bowl eligibility in 2012 under Coach Kill.
With a tough schedule in 2013, can the Gophers mine their way to a bowl game once more?
Injuries took their toll in 2012, with Coach Kill being forced to pull Philip Nelson‘s redshirt. With Max Shortell transferring to Jacksonville State, it’s pretty much his job to lose. While none of the Gopher quarterbacks were worldbeaters in 2012, of the Gray/Shortell/Nelson triumvirate, Nelson was about in the middle. Eight touchdowns (the most of the three), eight picks (the most of the three), and seven sacks (Shortell allowed nine). Having a young quarterback isn’t the worst thing in the world: assuming he stays injury-free, you pretty much know what to expect for the next three years. What Nelson needs to do is stay calm and distribute the ball more effectively than he did as a true freshman.
What Nelson lacks is a playmaker he can trust. His two returning running backs averaged 3.1 and 2.8 yards per carry last season (eeesssshhhh). Wide receiver Derrick Engel looks a more promising option, who took 18 catches in 2012 and turned them into 375 yards (13.0 yards per target). Of course, four of those catches and 108 of those yards came in the bowl game, so hopefully for Minnesota’s sake it’s a sign of things to come and not a flash in the pan.
An experienced offensive line should help buy Nelson some decision-making time: the Gophs return all seven of 2012’s contributors.
An experienced defensive line (starring 6’6″ 311 nose tackle Ra’Shede Hageman) should help anchor a rebuilding linebacker position, although the Gopher defense wasn’t particularly good at stopping the run or rushing the pass in 2012. The depth up front should help the linebackers, some of whom will have never played a snap of NCAA football before.
In the secondary, the Gophs lose a pair of amazing corners but retain a pair of not-quite-as-good-but-still-pretty-good safeties. If the secondary is able to maintain 2012’s success (12th in the country in passing yards allowed), it will give the defense at least a little confidence.
MINNESOTA SPECIAL TEAMS
Ehh. The Gophs return a decent punter in Christian Eldred, who pinned opponents inside the 20 66% of the time. 14-of-22 PK Jordan Wettstein is easily replaced, and it may be time to get Engel returning kicks, as Minnesota returns only one returner (who returned only eight kicks).
SO WHAT NOW?
Finding that sixth win will be the challenge. The schedule sets up fairly nicely at first, but San Jose State is no guarantee (what was scheduled as a paycheck game turned out to be an opponent who went 11-2 in 2012), and the Gophs will have to steal a win in conference from Iowa or Indiana to score that sixth win.
NAMES TO REMEMBER: QB Phillip Nelson, WR Derrick Engel, NT Ra’Shede Hageman
Nebraska plays Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota on October 26, 2013. Minnesota leads the all-time series 29-22-2. They last met on November 17, 2012, and Nebraska won 38-14.