When Jerry Kill was hired as the head football coach of the Minnesota Gophers in December of 2010, many analysts and fans were left scratching their head at the hire. Kill was a relatively unknown coach from Northern Illinois and Gophers’ fans were expecting a big name hire to replace the incumbent Tim Brewster who had run the Gophers program into disarray. What the Gophers got in their hire of Kill was a no nonsense, straight forward and blue-collar type of coach that wanted to build the program the right way: from the ground up.
What was refreshing about Kill was that he did not show up promising Rose Bowl appearances and Big 10 championships like his predecessor and he instead preached patience and reassurance that if given time, he could turn this program around. Every fan wants to hear the promises of a cheerleader type coach like Brewster who can make fans dream of the day where their favorite program is among the nation’s elite; but if you can’t back up and fulfill the promises that you are making to your recruits and your fans, then what is the point of making the promise in the first place?
Give Brewster credit in one aspect, the man knew how to recruit, but the problem was that he never was able to keep the best talent from within the state of Minnesota at home. Kill may not be the recruiter that Brewster was in terms of signing the “big-name” recruits, but he has kept the best talent in the state of Minnesota at home while also recruiting guys to fit his system and his type of players. What sets Kill apart from Brewster, however, is his ability to take his recruits and actually coach them and improve them as football players. Brewster failed to translate potential into success and Kill, so far, has shown signs of progress every year under his leadership.
In his first season at the helm of the Gophers, Kill led his team to a 3-9 record and a 2-6 record in the Big Ten. In year two, however, Kill improved his team to a 6-7 record, highlighted by a loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, but yet again fell to only 2-6 in the Big 10. Yet it was the eye test that showed Kill’s progress, not the record. His recruits were playing better, his system was looking improved and his identity that he forged for his program was beginning to take root and show signs of change; so what can be expected in year three under Kill?
For starters, the Big 10 record must go up. With quarterback Philip Nelson, running back Donnell Kirkwood, receivers Devin Crawford-Tufts, Isaac Fruechte and Andre Mcdonald and a solid returning offensive line, the Gophers will be very talented on offense, but the defense remains a question. After losing two starting cornerbacks and linebackers, the team will look to junior college transfers and some shuffling around of positions to fill the gaps left in their wake. If the defense can show signs of maturity and improvement, the win total could surprise some people.
With non-conference games against UNLV, San Jose State, Western Illinois and New Mexico State, the Gophers should jump out to an easy 4-0 start, but then comes the Big 10 schedule which the team is 4-12 in under Kill. If improvement can be shown across the board on defense, it shouldn’t be ridiculous to expect the Gophers to improve to 4-4 in the Big 10 and 8-4 overall. That would be a great improvement in Kill’s third year and would likely elevate his program even further with potential recruits. High end, I think the Gophers could win as many as nine games this year if everything goes right, but I also can see the team wining as few as six if things go wrong.
However, only winning six games if the season goes badly is a sign of progress under Kill and a sign of raised expectations. Kill’s inability to win games in the Big 10 will not be tolerated and he knows that. His staff has his players prepared to take the next step this season, and the results should speak for themselves.
While it may only be April and baseball season is upon us, I can’t help but look forward to August and maroon and gold taking the field for football season.