Let's just lay it on the line: Minnesota has really struggled on the field this season. The Gophers rank last in the Big Ten in scoring (both offense and defense), and no better than ninth in any statistical category. The Gophers best game this season might have been the season opener against USC. In Los Angeles, the Gophers second-half comeback came up short in a 19-17 loss. Since then, the bottom fell out. New Mexico State and 1-AA North Dakota State beat Minnesota in Minneapolis, and both Michigan and Purdue took the Gophers behind the woodshed.
Starting quarterback MarQueis Gray suffered a turf toe injury in the Gophers only victory against Miami, and missed the next two games. He split time against Purdue two weeks ago, and claims to be fully recovered after the bye week. But injury problems linger at running back, where only leading rusher Duane Bennett is healthy. Backup Donnell Kirkwood has been nursing a hamstring injury all season, and now freshmen David Cobb and Devon Wright are "real questionable" after also suffering hamstring injuries. Lamonte Edwards moved from running back to linebacker in fall practice, but is now practicing some at running back in case he's needed on offense. Of course, that leaves a hole on defense, as Edwards started at outside linebacker against Purdue.
As the season has spiraled out of control, you hear rumblings about the depth of the Gophers' problems, stemming back to the previous coaching staff. Kind of reminds me of the stories that came out of Lincoln three years ago. Is it a coincidence that Kevin Cosgrove was part of both staffs? Hard to say, but it's clear that Minnesota is having a tough time putting it all together. What will a bye week do for that? Will they rally together at home - or completely tank it? Things are rather rough, as University President Dr. Eric Kaler issued the dreaded "vote of confidence." After the jump, our summer preview of the Golden Gophers.
Tom Osborne probably summed it up best when Nebraska's inaugural Big Ten schedule was released, featuring games against at Wisconsin, Michigan, and Penn State along with home games against Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa: "Whoa!" Nebraska's only opponent that failed to make a bowl game in 2010: Minnesota. I'm sure many Husker fans were looking forward to a mid-season breather against the Gophers this season. Even more importantly, get a chance to see Nebraska's worst defensive coordinator of the past fifty or more years on the other sideline.
But our old friend Kevin Cosgrove was fired, along with the rest of the coaching staff after a miserable 3-9 season. Cosgrove is now defensive coordinator at Akron, which should delight offensive coordinators throughout the MAC. So rather than the Huskers exploiting the patented Cosgrove bend-and-break defense on October 22nd, it will be Frank Solich's Ohio Bobcats instead.
New Gopher head coach Jerry Kill brought along much of his coaching staff from Northern Illinois. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has been with Kill for ten years, following him from Southern Illinois to Northern Illinois then Minnesota. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has coached with Kill since 1995, and has been Kill's defensive coordinator the last twelve years. Northern Illinois went 11-3 last season, defeating Minnesota 34-23, and earning their third straight bowl game appearance.
By all accounts, Minnesota is ready to let MarQueis Gray play quarterback full-time now that Adam Weber's eligibility is over. Since Gray was too good of an athlete to keep on the bench, he's played mostly receiver but frequently took snaps as a Wildcat quarterback. Last season, he completed just 2 of 8 passes, but rushed for 110 yards on 23 carries. He was the Gophers' second leading receiver, catching 42 passes for 587 yards and 5 touchdowns. If Gray struggles, they probably will turn to 6'3" redshirt freshman Tom Parish, who passed up sophomore Moses Alipate in the spring game. Alipate is a pure dropback passer, who's weight has ballooned up to 281 pounds at last report.
Senior running back Duane Bennett started last season as the top back, rushing for 294 yards in the first two games. He sprained his ankle, and the injury bothered him the rest of the season. Bennett suffered an ACL injury in 2008 which limited his production in 2008 and 2009. Senior DeLeon Eskridge was the Gophers leading rusher last season, rushing for 698 yards and seven touchdowns, though with only a 3.6 yard per carry average. Look out for redshirt freshman Lamonte Edwards, who might emerge as the season progresses.
Senior Da'Jon McKnight is the Gophers leading returning receiver, catching 48 passes for 750 yards and ten touchdowns last season. Junior Brandon Green suffered a knee injury last season and was awarded a medical hardship. He started five games in 2009, catching 21 passes for 293 yards and a touchdown. JuCo transfer Ge'Shun Harris could come in and be a steady possession receiver with his 6'3" frame. Tight end Eric Lair caught 39 passes last season for 526 yards last season.
On the offensive line, the Gophers return two starters, both on the left side. Senior guard Ed Bunders has started every game the last two seasons, and sophomore tackle Ed Olson started 8 games as a redshirt freshman. Senior guard Ryan Orton was a spot starter on the line last season and should slide into the right guard position. All eyes are on redshirt freshman Jimmy Gjere, who turned down Wisconsin and Iowa to play for the Gophers.
On defense, the Gophers return eight starters, though they likely will need to be retrained on how to play defense. How long did it take the Blackshirts to shake off Kevin Cosgrove again? Three starters return up front from a group that struggled to stop the run or rush the passer. Senior Anthony Jacobs is the third leading returning tackler, though he's moving from defensive end inside to tackle. Junor defensive end D.L. Wilhite needs to rebound into the form that earned him all-Big Ten freshman honors in 2009.
All three starting linebackers from last season return. Senior Gary Tinsley led the Gophers with 90 tackles last season despite a nagging hamstring injury that hampered him all season long. Juniors Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper also return, but one of those is likely to lose their starting spot to sophomore Brendan Beal, who transferred from Florida. Beal was a Parade All-American, but didn't want to bide his time in Gainsville. At 6'3" and 245 pounds, look for him to find a home at middle linebacker.
In the secondary, the Gophers return three starters...most importantly, free safety Kim Royston. Royston started his career at WIsconsin, then transferred to Minnesota for the 2009 season. Last season, a broken leg kept him on the sideline all season long, and the NCAA awarded him a sixth season of eligibility. Senior cornerback Troy Stoudermire moved from receiver to cornerback during last season and started the final six games of 2010. He was a quick study, and proved to be a solid hitter when tackling. He'll also return kickoffs, averaging 27.2 yards a return.
Minnesota showed some signs of life late in the season, upsetting Illinois and Iowa who probably were looking past the Gophers. Jerry Kill has been a winner every where he's been...but it'll take time to dig Minnesota out of this hole.