Minnesota's 5-2 start to the 2013 season has been overshadowed nationally by head coach Jerry Kill's recurring problems with epilepsy. Seizures at halftime of the Western Illinois game and prior to the Michigan game have led Kill to take a medical leave of absence to ensure that he's receiving the necessary treatment. That's too bad, because the Gophers are putting together a decent season despite injuries to key parts of the Gophers offense.
Quarterback Philip Nelson suffered a hamstring injury against Western Illinois, and missed the San Jose State game. He struggled so much in a loss to Iowa that he lost his job to freshman Mitch Leidner. But against Northwestern last weekend, Nelson came off the bench to replace an ineffective Leidner to spark the Gophers upset of the Wildcats. Nelson didn't run particularly well (nine carries for 26 yards), but completed eight of eleven passes for 112 yards. So who will start against the Huskers? Acting head coach Tracy Claeys hasn't said, but I'd be surprised if Nelson doesn't open the game against Nebraska. Leidner was battling an illness on Tuesday, putting his availability for Saturday in some doubt.
Tailback Donnell Kirkwood sprained his ankle in the season opener; he missed the next two games and has been replaced by junior David Cobb. Cobb, a 5'11" 225 pound bruiser, rushed for 103 yards against Northwestern and 477 yards and five touchdowns this season. Rodrick Williams has rushed for 332 yards on 60 carries this season, but was benched last week on offense for some off-the-field issues. Kirkwood still isn't back to form; he had 10 carries for 26 yards last week against Northwestern.
Senior Derrick Engel has built on his bowl performance to lead the Gophers in receiving. He's caught 16 passes for 224 yards and two scores this season. Redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams (6'4" 254 pounds) is second in receiving with 10 catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns.
Nose tackle Ra'Shede Hageman is leading the Gopher defense up front, earning him some mention for all-B1G honors. 6.5 tackles for loss and seven pass deflections, with a big interception last week against Northwestern. Sophomore defensive end Theiren Cockran (6'6" 238 pounds) has emerged with four sacks and two forced fumbles this season. Junior linebacker Damien Wilson (6'2" 254 pounds) leads the Gophers with 43 tackles, with senior linebacker Aaron Hill adding 38 more. Safeties Brock Vereen and Cedric Thompson have 36 and 33 tackles respectively. Vereen could see some action at cornerback this week if Derrick Wells' shoulder keeps him out this week.
Minnesota's offense ranks fourth in the Big Ten, averaging 210 yards a game. (Nebraska is second, averaging nearly 285 yards. Minnesota and Nebraska are seventh and eighth, giving up 123 and 157 yards respectively on the ground. The Gophers are last in the Big Ten in passing at 118 yards a game, while Nebraska and Minnesota are eighth and ninth respectively in pass defense. The most impressive offensive stat for Minnesota is that the Gophers have scored on 22 of 23 drives in the red zone. The Gophers are also tops in the Big Ten in red zone defense, with opponents scoring 75% of the time when they get inside the Minnesota 20 yard line.
Preseason Preview of the Minnesota Golden Gophers
In college football, new head coaches typically get three or four years to begin delivering substantial improvement over their predecessor. That doesn't mean that new coaches don't have to worry about winning; embarrass the school and it's fans, and a new coach will get the quick hook. (Ask Ellis Johnson how 0-12 worked out for him at Southern Miss.) Bo Pelini energized Husker fans by getting the Huskers within one second of the Fiesta Bowl in year two. But when the staff gets to year three, fans expect more. Your recruits are now in place, and it's time to start delivering, right or wrong.
Jerry Kill is in year three at Minnesota; a berth in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in 2012 was a pleasant sign of progress. Now, is Kill ready to turn Minnesota football around? That's the question Gopher fans are asking. With a slightly tougher schedule in 2013 (swapping Illinois and Purdue for Indiana and Penn State), just getting back to bowl eligibility might be enough for some fans. (Of course, fans being fans, others won't be satisfied with anything short of a Rose Bowl.) But do the Gophers have the players to take Minnesota football to the next level?
The Gophers hope that sophomore Philip Nelson is the answer at quarterback. Injuries to MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell gave Nelson the opportunity to play midway through his freshman season. His statistics were modest; completing only 49% of his passes for 873 yards, eight touchdowns, and eight interceptions. He did have his moments, such as completing 15 of 22 passes against Purdue, and that's what gives Minnesota hope that Nelson grows into the role. If it's not Nelson, freshmen Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler await in the wings. Leidner is more of a pro-style passer, while Streveler is more of a dual-threat like Kill employed at Northern Illinois.
Concerns about quarterback play can be allieved by relying on the ground game, and that's just what Minnesota evolved to in the Car Care Bowl against Texas Tech. Junior Donnell Kirkwood rushed for 926 yards and six touchdowns last season. The 5'10" 223 pound running back was more of an inside runner as a freshman, but showed some speed on the edge as a sophomore. In the bowl game, backup Rodrick Williams emerged with a 12 carry 60 yard performance that shows where Kill wants to take the offense. Williams is an even bigger (5'11" 235 pound) back who's actually a bit faster, which should make for a nice 1-2 punch. Incoming freshman Berkley Edwards is a smaller speed back who could see some time as a change-of-pace back, especially in passing situations. If the last name sounds familiar, it should...he's Braylon's (former Michigan receiver) little brother.
If you are going to commit to a power running game, you need a good offensive line, and Minnesota returns eight players who've started multiple games. Injuries last season led to a lot of shuffling of personnel and some lackluster results. If everyone is healthy, the Gophers should have a solid group of offensive linemen to implement a power rushing attack. The line will be anchored by senior left tackle Ed Olson, who'll be a four year starter on the line. "Little" brother Tommy Olson will likely be slotted in at one of the guard spots, while junior Zach Epping will undoubtely start at guard or center. Sophomore Josh Campion started every game at right tackle as a redshirt freshman last year; expect him to do the same. Intriguing newcomers include junior Brian Bobek, who transferred from Ohio State after playing in five games as a freshman, and redshirt freshmen Jonah Pirsig and Issac Hayes. This isn't going to be a Wisconsin offensive line in terms of talent, but should be sufficient to prepare the way for Kirkwood and Williams on the ground.
One good reason to focus on the ground game in 2013 is the lack of production returning at receiver. A.J. Barker was last year's leading receiver, despite missing three games due to injury before quitting the team just after the Nebraska game. After burning the bridges with Jerry Kill by going public with his grievances, he attempted to transfer to Houston, but instead was arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession the day before spring classes began. Of what's returning, junior Isaac Fruechte caught 19 passes last season to lead this group. At 6'3", he has good size, but he virtually disappeared at the end of the season. Senior Derrick Engel had a big Care Care Bowl game with 108 yards receiving, which could be a sign of things to come. A couple of other names to watch for are redshirt freshman Jamel Harbison, who started last season's season opener, only to tear his ACL in the first half, and incoming frshman Drew Wolitarsky. Harbison was a highly touted recruit in 2012, and was back for the spring game. Wolitarsky set the California high school career record with 281 catches for 5,148 yards and 52 touchdowns.
Six starters return for the Gophers on defense, with the most important being nose tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. The 6'6" 311 pound senior totaled 35 tackles and six sacks last season, earning him honorable mention all-Big Ten honors. The Gophers return seven of their top eight defensive linemen from last season, but the missing guy is second team all-Big Ten defensive end D.L. Wilhite. Can 6'2" 244 pound junior Michael Amaefula (19 tackles in 2012) or 6'6" 245 pound sophomore Theiren Cockran (6 tackles backing up Wilhite in 2012) become that playmaker in 2013?
At linebacker, senior strongside linebacker Aaron Hill returns after posting 74 tackles, which tied for third on the Gopher defense last season. The 6'2" 231 pounder had nine or more tackles in four games last season, and he'll be counted on to do more. The Gophers hit the JuCo ranks for 6'2" 254 pound junior Damien Wilson and 6'5" 225 pound sophomore De'Vondre Campbell. Wilson racked up 122 tackles last year at Jones County Community College, which ranked fourth in the nation for junior college players. If Wilson and Campbell make a smooth transition to the Gopher system, Minnesota could be better at linebacker this season...and remember, the Gophers held Nebraska to just 133 yards rushing last season.
With the loss of the starting cornerbacks, junior Derrick Wells moves from safety to corner. Wells tied with Hill with 74 tackles last season, which leads the Gopher returners. He also broke up a team-leading ten passes last season. Senior Brock Vereen (64 tackles in 2012) is the other returning starter at free safety. Junior Cedric Thompson was a spot starter last year and should see more action in relief of Wells.
Minnesota had the lead on Texas Tech, but allowed the Raiders to tie the game with just over a minute left...then threw an interception to set up the game winning field goal. How will the Gophers respond to a lost opportunity in the Car Care Bowl? Minnesota will need to jump out to a fast star in September, as a brutal October and November schedule will find wins scarce for the Gophers. If the Gophers can start out 5-0, then a November road game at Indiana the week after playing the Huskers would make Minnesota bowl eligible for a second year in a row.