Minnesota: Sandwiched between their opening game victory against Middle Tennessee State and wins in their final two games (Illinois and Iowa) the Gophers suffered through a nine game losing streak. The Minnesota administration had seen enough after only seven games and a combined 15-30 record of the Brewster regime, replacing him with interim head coach Jeff Horton for the final 5 games of 2011. This was a team that simply seemed out of sync for most of the year, except for the final two games when they pulled surprising upsets over two bowl eligible teams. Those two wins displayed that this team had pride and talent enough to compete, but just never put it together. After several high profile names had been bantered about, Minnesota opted for someone less heralded in hiring Jerry Kill from Northern Illinois where he had spent the last three seasons compiling a 23-16 record and three bowl appearances. Kill has a career record of 127-73 over a 17 year career, and the reputation of being a fundamentally sound and disciplined football coach. Kill will have some decent offensive skill position talent to work with but needs to develop a better forward wall to make his multiple formation offense more formidable than last years 23 points/game average.
Offense: The offense returns six starters in 2011, but only two are offensive linemen, senior guard Chris Bunders and sophomore tackle Ed Olson, so there is plenty of rebuilding to be performed. Luckily the Gophers have a versatile and potentially electrifying player in MarQueis Gray. Gray has alternated between QB and WR his first two seasons with the emphasis being placed on receiving. It now appears that Gray will spend his time working at quarterback to permit him as much time with the ball in his hands to make things happen. He is set in the Vince Young, Cam Newton type mode as a runner, and if he can get the passing game figured out he’ll make the Gopher offense all that more dangerous. Joining Gray in the Gopher backfield is senior Duane Bennett who led the team in all purpose yards in 2010 and who was the leading rusher in 2009. UM returns their top three receiving targets in 2011 when you include Gray who was the teams second leading receiver with 42 receptions. The Gophers top target in 2010 was Da’Jon McKnight who returns for his senior season in 2011. McKnight is a tall receiver with good hands who is very effective in using his height to shield the ball from defenders. He had a team high 10 TD’s and an impressive 15.6 yards/receptions average. Also returning is senior TE Eric Lair who was third on the team with 39 receptions. At 6’3”, 239 pounds Lair is not a physically imposing, run-blocking type TE, but he is an excellent target, finding the seams in the defense. If Kill wants a more physical style of play senior TE Tiree Uure, who at 6’7” 263 pounds, or John Rabe, 6’4”, 248 can accommodate . As pointed out previously, the Minnesota offensive line will receive the majority of the rebuilding emphasis due to having to replace three departed starters from center on over on the right side of the line. Sophomore tackle, Ed Olson and senior guard Chris Bunders are the one returning veterans. One possible replacement could be senior Ryan Orton, who had two starts at right guard late in the season.
Defense: The Gophers return eight, three of which were in the top five in tackles in 2010, but also gave up 33 points/game. The star of the unit is senior Safety Kim Royston who returns after missing the entire 2010 season due to injury. His return, along with the addition of Florida Gator transfer, linebacker Brendan Beal could potentially provide a serious boost in the performance of the Golden Gopher defense. The defensive line only registered nine sacks in 2010 as well as giving up 191 yards rushing per game. The middle of the Gopher line is manned by seniors Brandon Kirksey (6’2’, 299) and Anthony Jacobs (6’2, 295). Both have the ability to be disruptive influences however without complementary support by the defensive ends offenses were able to effectively control these two. The starting defensive ends last season consisted of a sophomore D.L. Wilhite (6‘4“, 237), and freshman Kendall Gregory-McGee (6’5”, 253). Wilhite has tremendous quickness, but can be overpowered and out manned by physically stronger offensive linemen. Gregory-McGee is another speed rusher with slightly better measurable than Wilhite. What he lacks is experience, but as he grows and develops he will become a formidable pass rusher. The entire line backing unit returns intact, however there could be a bit of a shake up if UF transfer Brendan Beal (soph., 6’3”, 245) unseats senior Gary Tinsley (6’1”, 237) for the MIKE position. Coach Kill will put his best players on the field and that could possibly usher Tinsley being moved to one of the other two spots, replacing either junior Mike Rallis (6’2”, 236, SAM) or junior Keanon Cooper (6’, 207, WILL) in order to get his best three athletes on the field. The secondary suffered from the lack of a pass rush which requiring them having to cover receivers for extended periods, resulting in their finishing 113th in pass defense efficiency. This group however has two solid returning corners in senior Troy Stoudermire (5’10, 195), and sophomore Brock Vereen (6’, 181). Junior Michael Carter (5’11”, 182) is a talented backup who if not starting is a tremendous nickel back. The safety position lost both starters but that will be tempered by the return of senior Kim Royston. Royston was third on the team in tackles, recorded one interception and forced fumble and six pass breakups in 2009. His experience, ability and leadership should provide a steadying influence.
Special Teams: The Minnesota kicking game was nothing to write home about as returning sophomore punter Dan Orseske averaged a paltry 36.1 yards on 49 punts and as a unit 30.94 yard net average. He did register 16 fair catches, but when a punt coverage team only has to run 35 yards it is easy to get down field before the punt arrives. Field goals were handled by Eric Ellestad who was 11 of 16, going 5 for 11 beyond 30 yards. Ellestad has graduated and the hope is that North Carolina State transfer, sophomore Chris Hawthorne will improve the kicking game. Hawthorne has hit all five of his college PAT attempts, and his lone field goal, a 25 yard attempt. Minnesota’s return game is in the capable hands of Troy Stoudermire, who averaged 27.21 yards/kickoff return. Good enough for 22nd in the nation.
Outlook: Everyone is anxious to see if Tim Brewster’s recruiting prowess was as good as advertised now that Jerry Kill will be responsible for developing them. This is a team that was a conundrum last year, losing to FCS opponent South Dakota, and managing to beat an Iowa team that was ranked #24 at the time. I believe the problems associated with this team could be a result of dissention between the players and the former staff and not a lack of talent. Kill has earned the reputation for being a program builder and getting the most out of the talent he inherits and eventually recruits. Unfortunately he begins his Golden Gopher career against USC on the road. The rest of the out of conference schedule becomes more manageable with New Mexico State, Miami (OH), and North Dakota State. Heading into the conference schedule they should be no worse than 2-2, with a strong likelihood of being 3-1 when they face Michigan on the road. This will be an interesting contest due to the Wolverine defenses past struggles with athletic, mobile quarterbacks. Gray could give the Wolverine’s plenty of fits. I’m expecting a high scoring affair that could go either way. Victories become more difficult after they face the Boilermakers in week two because the next five contests in order are Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. They finish the regular season against Illinois, one of the two conference teams they beat last season. It’s understood that a coach is hired to win and get the program to bowl games ASAP. It is not out of the realm of possibilities that Kill could achieve a 6-6 record, especially if the offensive line can gel and the young defensive linemen step up their performances. If not, it is difficult finding three conference wins. I expect Kill to achieve at a minimum a 5-7 record in year one showing continued improvement throughout the season.