Over the last few years, Minnesota has been another example of learning the hard way that sometimes a coaching change makes things worse, rather than better. Minnesota ran off Glen Mason after 10 years and seven bowl berths, thinking they could do better. Tim Brewster certainly couldn't, as evidenced by his hiring of Kevin Cosgrove. Enter Jerry Kill, who starting trying to rebuild the program last season. There were highs: losing by just two points to Southern Cal at the LA Mausoleum, as well as victories over Iowa and Illinois. But far more lows: a shellacking by Michigan, blowout losses to Nebraska and Purdue, and a loss to Craig Bohl's North Dakota State team. (Granted, the Bison did win the 1-AA national championship last season.) Plus, Kill suffered a seizure at the end of the New Mexico State game, with over 20 more in the weeks following.
Kill has a consistent record of developing winning programs, starting in division 2 and working up to Northern Illinois from 2008 through 2010. This year, the goal for Minnesota is gradual improvement: maybe get out of the basement in the Big Ten's West division and get to a bowl game. With non-conference games against UNLV (2-10 in 2011), Syracuse (5-7 last year), Western Michigan (7-6 last year), and 1-AA opponent New Hampshire, the door is open.If Minnesota is going to go anywhere this season, senior quarterback Mar'Queis Gray will have to lead them there. He was the leading rusher for the Gophers last season, rushing for 966 yards and six touchdowns. The 6'4" 245 pound Gray is a better runner than passer; he completed only 51% his passes last season for 1,495 yards, eight touchdowns, and eight interceptions. Gray was a highly recruited dual-threat quarterback who spent his first two seasons at wide receiver. Sophomore Max Shortell will back him up, but only completed 48% of his passes as a true freshman. His best performance was when he made things interesting at the end of the Southern Cal game in sparking the comeback.
One thing that would help Gray would be to have a running back emerge this season. That might be 5'11" 204 pound junior college transfer James Gillum, who rushed for 1,042 yards at Mississippi State Gulf Coast Community College last fall. He'll be backed up by 5'10" 216 pound sophomore Donnell Kirkwood, who rushed for 223 yards and three touchdowns last year. Neither back is a game-breaker, but they'll be dependable just the same. Incoming freshman KJ Maye could become a third-down back and explosive perimeter player; at least that's the hope.
Last year, Da'Jon McKnight was responsible for more than a third of the Gophers' receptions, so his departure is going to be tough to replace. Senior Brandon Green is the leading candidate to step up his production; last year, he caught just 15 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown after missing the 2010 season due to a knee injury. 5'11" junior Malcolm Mouton caught 14 passes for 174 yards as a part-time starter last season. Sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts is a player to watch out for; if he can master the offense this season, he could be the big playmaker the Gophers need in the passing game.
Hopes were higher for the offensive line this season until sophomore right tackle Jimmy Gjere had to give up football due to concussion concerns. Now, the Gophers look to the Olson brothers to be the leaders up front on the left. Ed, the junior left tackle, is a two year starter, while sophomore left guard Tommy started three games last season. Also returning is sophomore right guard Zac Epping, who started eight games last year. This group is still a pretty young bunch who'll only get better over the next couple of years.
Six starters return on defense including two on the defensive line. Senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite and sophomore end Ben Perry return after rather lackluster 2011 seasons with 16 and 15 tackles respectively. The Gophers have to look inside to see if junior college transfer Roland Johnson can make an immediate impact at nose tackle. At the other tackle spot, hopes are high on junior Ra'Shede Hageman, who's got the motor to dominate once he masters the switch from offense.
Two linebackers return as well, but the hole created by Gary Tinsley's graduation grew even larger when he passed away in April from an enlarged heart. This season, the Gophers will wear a patch dedicated to "GT 51" on their jerseys in remembrance. Seniors Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper will have to pick up the load as well as the leadership duties from their fallen teammate this season. Rallis and Cooper are 1-2 in returning tacklers from last season with 83 and 77 each. Rallis will anchor the middle while Cooper moves from weakside to strongside linebacker.
In the secondary, cornerback Troy Soudermire returns with a medical hardship after missing most of last season with an injured arm. Up until the injury, he was a tackling machine, racking up 24 tackles and two interceptions in just four games. Junior Brock Vereen plans to slide over from the other corner position to free safety, which should cause his tackle totals to explode from 67 last season. That will open a corner spot for junior college transfer Martez Shabazz, who broke up 21 passes last season for Trinity Valley Community College.
Minnesota is probably a long-term rebuilding project, and expecting bowl eligibility in 2012 is probably a stretch at this point. Doesn't mean it's impossible, mind you...but the Gophers have a lot to do to get to that level. The first place to start is to stop losing to 1-AA teams (three losses in the last five years). Solve that problem, then pull off a couple of upsets (cough...Iowa....cough), and you never know.