The Rant Sports 100 in 100 series continues, taking a look at the No. 56 Minnesota Golden Gophers and their attempted return to relevancy under the guidance of head coach Jerry Kill.
With several key pieces departed and young talent filling in across the board, it’ll be interesting to see if Kill’s group can take another step in the right direction after an improved showing in 2012. Finishing with a 6-7 record (2-6 conference), the Golden Gophers took strides on defense, but lacked the spark to stay competitive on the offensive side of the ball. This year, all of that could change.
Here’s a look at Kill’s crew heading into the 2013 season…
After their horrendous offensive showing in 2012, the only direction for Minnesota to go is up in 2013. With the quarterback position in flux and two average running backs leading the ground game, little went well for the Golden Gophers when they had the football. When all was said and done, they had managed only 321.4 offensive yards per game, earning them the ranking as the 108th best (or worst) offense in the nation.
This season should be better, though.
Minnesota heads into the season with a solid starting quarterback, true sophomore Philip Nelson, and an experienced duo of runners capable of picking up consistent yards. The big question, though, is who Nelson will throw to.
No wide receiver on the roster had more than 18 receptions last season, and the entire receiving corps has a grand total of four touchdowns. Isaac Fruechte, Derrick Engel and Devin Crawford-Tufts are expected to lead the charge in the passing game, but none of them fit the mold of a true No. 1 receiver.
Meanwhile, Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams should join forces to form a decent backfield duo. Kirkwood led the way for Minnesota last season with 926 rushing yards and six scores while Williams pitched in 261 yards and two touchdowns. With another year of experience under both of their belts, they should find a way to move the chains consistently on the ground.
Luckily, the offensive line has only improved since last season and should do a better job of opening holes and keeping Nelson upright in 2013. It’s more baby steps for Kill and Co., but the Golden Gophers are moving in the right direction offensively.
While Minnesota’s defensive outlook isn’t nearly as gloomy as it is on offense, there are still several concerns that must be addressed if they’re going to win some games in 2013.
First and foremost is figuring out how to slow down the run, which the Golden Gophers struggled mightily with this past season. Giving up 172 rushing yards per game, Minnesota allowed teams to wear down the defense and the clock. The return of defensive tackle and NFL prospect Ra’Shede Hageman should provide some extra support, but the Golden Gophers will need someone else – say Cameron Botticelli or Scott Ekpe – to step up as well.
The pass defense, however, was a pleasant surprise in 2012. Unfortunately, the loss of cornerbacks Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter is going to hurt. Still, if Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson and Derrick Wells can gel as a unit, there’s a good chance that the secondary should carry their momentum over from last season. The departure of 2012 sack leader D.L. Wilhite is also worth taking into consideration.
It’s looking like the linebacker unit will be made up mostly of newcomers, with JUCO additions Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell currently penciled in as starters after the departure of Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis. While experience is definitely going to play a factor in how well the linebacking corps plays, the presence of senior Aaron Hill should help.
At first glance, it looks like Minnesota has it easy in 2013. The first four games pit them against UNLV (home), New Mexico State (away), Western Illinois (home) and San Jose State (home). While UNLV and San Jose State won’t be cakewalks, all four contests are winnable for the Golden Gophers. After that, though, it’s anything but clear sailing.
Their final eight games are against Big Ten foes, and the Golden Gophers have struggled recently in conference play. They finished last season with a 2-6 conference record, only managing wins against Illinois and Purdue. Despite their apparent improvement since last year, Minnesota will struggle to stay competitive yet again. Finishing off the 2013 campaign with a home game against Wisconsin on Nov. 23 and a trip to Michigan State on Nov. 30 isn’t going to be pretty.
While they won’t be pushing for the Big Ten title anytime soon, Minnesota is taking positive steps towards a brighter future under the leadership of Kill. If his history can repeat itself, the Golden Gophers should improve on their 2012 record this upcoming season and move that much closer to regaining relevancy in the national picture.