Jerry Kill and Minnesota look to build on late-season positives of 2011 during spring practice
At the end of 2010, Jerry Kill left one of the best programs in the MAC to take over one of the worst programs in the Big Ten. Last season, the team he left behind, Northern Illinois, won the MAC, while his new team, Minnesota, predictably struggled.
Minnesota finished 3-9, but there were some positive signs in the second half of the season. The Golden Gophers upset Iowa in late October, then downed Illinois in the regular-season finale; both those teams went to bowls. Minnesota also acquitted itself well in losses to USC (by two) and Michigan State (by seven).
But there also were losses to a middling New Mexico State team, to FCS member North Dakota State and to Purdue by 28 points. Thus, there obviously is work to do this spring, and Kill and his staff have just nine returning starters.
Coach: Jerry Kill (2nd season)
Last season: 3-9, 2-6 Big Ten
Spring practice dates: March 24-April 21
(minimum 7 starts last season):
Offense (4): G Zac Epping, QB MarQueis Gray, WR Brandon Green, T Ed Olson
Defense (5): LB Keanon Cooper, E Ed Perry, LB Mike Rallis, CB Brock Vereen, E D.J. Wilhite
Special teams (2): K Chris Hawthorne, P Dan Orseske
Minnesota’s pass offense must get a lot better. No one feared Minnesota’s passing attack last season; heck, a case can be made that no one even respected it. The Gophers threw for just 150.3 yards per game and had as many interceptions as touchdowns (10). The scary part: The leading returning receiver had just 15 receptions last season (and he was the No. 2 receiver last season).
While QB MarQueis Gray has giant strides to make as a passer, he is an effective runner and is the Gophers’ leading returning rusher. Minnesota needs a new starting tailback, and developing depth at the position will be important this spring, as well.
A lot of young linemen played last season, and there is potential along the line.
Defensively, the rush defense was bad, and both starting tackles have to be replaced. The secondary has to be rebuilt as well. The Gophers ranked 49th in pass defense, which sounds good until you look a bit closer. One reason for the relatively good numbers is that no one needed to pass because it was so easy to run on the Gophers. But when opponents did pass, they had a lot of success, completing 67.7 percent of their attempts and tossing 23 TD passes to just four interceptions. Only one team (New Mexico, with three) had fewer interceptions last season. Thus, coaches need to find some playmakers in the secondary.
The biggest problem: The defense. Specifically, the Gophers need to find replacements for the middle of their defense. Gone are both starting tackles, the starting middle linebacker and both starting safeties. The Gophers do have some experience at tackle in Ra’Shede Hageman, who has shown flashes of All-Big Ten type skills, but who will line up next to him and behind him will be some of the spring’s biggest battles.
On the spot: WR Brandon Green. Green, a senior, needs to step up and become the go-to receiver many predicted he would become since he first arrived on campus. At times during his career, he has made big plays, but inconsistency and injuries have held him back. With the graduation of Da’Jon McKnight, Green’s experience means he should get the first crack to be the go-to guy.
On the verge: G Tommy Olson. He was able to get some playing time on special teams and at left guard last season; this season, he will be expected to help protect Gray from day one. He has all of the skills to be among the best interior linemen in the conference, and he will get some help from his older brother Eddie, the likely starter at left tackle. Tommy should be the star of a young and improving line.
General overview: For the first time in five years, the team will not be changing any coordinators – or any assistants, for that matter. That staff has still plenty of work to do on both sides of the ball. On offense, they need to find a new running back, rebuild the receiver corps and build continuity on the line. JC transfer James Gillum likely will get the first shot at running back. On defense, aside from one cornerback spot and the outside linebackers, there should be battles at just about every spot. Overall, the main goal for spring needs to be to build on the positive gains that were made late last season and continue to get the team comfortable with the playbook.
For in-depth coverage of Minnesota athletics, go to GopherIllustrated.com
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