Jerry Kill was hired as the head coach of Minnesota in 2011 with the directive of turning around a program that regularly found itself in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings at season’s end. The Golden Gophers — since joining the conference in 1953 — have only finished at the top the standings twice (co-champions in 1960 and 1967) and have accumulated a postseason record of 5-12 in that time.
Since Kill replaced former head coach Tim Brewster, the program has been showing slow, steady improvement over four seasons, winning at least 8 games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1961. Fans generally dismiss Minnesota as a contender, though it may be time to give them a little more respect.
The Gophers’ defense was a solid unit in 2014 and is returning seven starters, including four in the secondary. All-Big Ten performers Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray combined for six interceptions last season and are two of the stingiest corners in the conference. The pass rush is expected to be stronger with defensive end Theiren Cockran (7.5 sacks in 2014) returning to the lineup and Hank Ekpe expected to be healthy.
Offense is the big question mark for Minnesota heading into 2015 with junior quarterback Mitch Leidner returning. Leidner was good but not great last season, throwing 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His 149.8 passing yards per game ranked 10th in the conference and the overall passing attack ranked 119th nationally. The Gophers lost running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams to the NFL, though young, talented receivers are expected to make a positive impact. Kill will also try to improve Leidner’s efficiency by implementing a no-huddle offense that will try to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand more quickly.
The Gophers held a 17-3 lead in last year’s regular season finale against Wisconsin, and had they held on, they would’ve earned a berth in the Big Ten Championship game. Minnesota is in a position this year to keep moving forward and they’re also helped by the fact that they’re in the far weaker of the two divisions in the Big Ten. It will likely be a three-team race to the Big Ten Championship game between the Gophers, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
We shouldn’t see any regression from Minnesota in 2015, though whether they can take the next step to reach the championship game will depend on the improvement of Leidner and the contributions of the newcomers on offense. The defense should be just as strong, if not better, and I expect them to help the Gophers to compete in the Big Ten West once again.
Jason Shawley is a Featured Writer for RantSports.com covering Big Ten Football. Follow him on Twitter @jshawls.