The narrative so far:
Aug. 31: Devin Gardner is still really good! High five.
Sept. 7: If Michigan wins, I would be totally okay with listening to Pop Evil.
Sept. 14: Oh hey, DeAnthony Hardison. What’s up.
Sept. 21: Still predicting 14-6. U mad, bros?
Sept. 28: Bye.
Nobody puts Jerry Kill in a corner.
Minnesota went 6-7 overall and won just two games in the B1G. For a team that inspired GopherQuest: Worst Big Ten Team Ever the year previous, that was pretty good. Even the way they lost was much better. You saw glimpses of promise -- like maybe in three years they’ll be a Purdue when Purdue was decent or a Northwestern. They fell to Texas Tech 33-31 in the Texas Bowl, which was still a pretty impressive overachievement, if only for the fact that they made it to a bowl game in the first place.
Please be complete please be complete
Minnesota has clarity and reason for optimism at nearly every position on offense except for maybe quarterback. There is a lot of potential, though, and as rebuilding processes go, that’s a pretty good place to be. Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have a golden opportunity to build some momentum for the program if they can take the offense to the proverbial next level. It might be worth keeping an eye on the Gophers; this season will probably determine whether they become the next Northwestern or if their shadows force them back into hidey holes for 6 more weeks of Winter. However that analogy is supposed to work.
Sophomore QB Philip Nelson will be the guy under the microscope. He’s coming off a true freshman campaign in which he beat out MarQueis Gray midseason for the starting job. While his stats through seven games aren’t that shiny (49%, 873 yards, 8 TDs, 8 INTs), he performed well enough to beat Purdue and Illinois and clinch bowl eligibility. That’s something, I guess, and there’s not a lot of shame in playing poorly against Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.
So we’ll see if he makes the sophomore leap. Nelson has a nice veteran supporting cast around him, so chances are he will. I mean, he gets all five offensive linemen back. From left to right: Ed Olson, Tommy Olson (Ed’s brother), Zac Epping, Caleb Bak, and Josh Campion. In more useful terms: 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, 6-5, all 300+ lbs. #B1G! Ed, the elder Olson, is the only senior in this group, which means their O-line continuity will span another season. Plus the fact that O-line seems to be Limegrover’s thing … Be afraid, B1G West Division. Be very afraid.
The running game should be much improved with RB Donnell Kirkwood returning. The 5-10, 230-lb bowling ball almost eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing last year with a 4.2 ypc average. Smart money says he breaks the barrier this season. RB Rodrick Williams, another bowling-ball sized object (5-11, 230 lbs), will be a solid backup. He didn’t get too many carries last season, but he made them count, averaging 4.6 ypc on 51 carries.
Of note to Michigan fans, Braylon’s little brother Berkley joins the Gophers roster as a freshman and will be pushing to be their version of Dennis Norfleet, excepted more utilized.
As far as receiver goes, well. This appears to be a touchy subject. Late last season the team’s No. 1 wideout A. J. Barker called it quits and blasted the coaching staff via the internet on his way out. That was not ideal, I guess. And Jerry Kill seems like such a nice guy.
Whether Minnesota’s passing game truly took a hit after that, no one knows because no one was really paying attention. But more to the point, playing Nebraska and Michigan State to close out the season can make any passing offense look bad. The Gophers didn’t have the best day through the air against Texas Tech, either -- not that they needed to with their running game that gained over 200 yards -- but it looked like there was a lot of reason for optimism. Well, there was one reason for optimism: Senior wideout Derrick Engel had himself a 4 catch, 108 yard day. He's now a bona fide deep threat.
Regardless, the wideouts should be just fine in 2013. Veteran contributor Isaac Freuchte (19 rec, 256 yards, 2 TDs) saw his production fall over the course of the season but is still an able body with a sweet name. The rest of the bunch has a lot of size, speed, and potential -- their development should be on the upswing with a more experienced, non-Freshman quarterback.
Let's block this guy next time.
They have one! Kind of? Sort of. They have Ra’Shede Hageman, and he’s probably the only name to know. Hageman is a 6-6, 310 lb nose tackle who came up with 6 sacks and 7.5 TFLs last season. Hageman probably should be playing either 3-tech or 5-tech, but when you’re Minnesota I guess you can’t afford to be so particular. Anyway, he’s very active and very good, not just by Gophers standards.
DT Cameron Botticelli returns on the interior next to Hageman. You won’t recognize his name (or anyone else’s) because he doesn’t do a whole lot other than exist. Having 21 tackles as a starting defensive tackle without any for a loss usually means that opposing running backs ran into him 21 times by accident.
The defensive ends will be dudes who have taken occasional snaps here and there, but unless one of them blows up at the beginning of the season, they’re not really worth keeping an eye on. I mean, really, the strategy here is clear: successfully block Hageman, earn $$$.
Minnesota can probably get by with a one-man show on the D-line if the linebackers are competent. That’s hard to predict at this point. The only returning linebacker is senior OLB Aaron Hill (74 tackles, 4 TFLs, 2 INTs). They’ve got a converted running back and a pair of JUCO transfers competing for the interior spots. Word on the internet is that the JUCOs are good.
The secondary should theoretically be able to hold their coverage long enough for Hageman to do something. There’s plenty of experience. CB Derrick Wells (74 tackles, 10 PBUs, 2 INTs) will move from safety to replace departed star CB Troy Stoudermire. CB Martez Shabazz (6 tackles, 3 PBUs, 1 INT) was a backup last year but made clearly made some nice plays with limited opportunities. Brock Vereen (64 tackles, 9 PBUs, 2 INTs), and Cedric Thompson (43 tackles, 2 INTs) will form a nice safety blanket. The secondary overall was pretty good at limiting big plays against crappy Big Ten quarterbacks, so it’s reasonable to expect them to maintain status quo.
You know, Minnesota could actually field a pretty decent defensive unit. Player development will be key as always, but already the Gophers are in much better shape than the other B1G bottom feeders.
This team is kind of like: Remember the girl you never noticed in high school? Her name is Minnesota, and she drives a Kia.
Vs. Michigan: Over the last two years, Michigan has had a habit of destroying opponents in their B1G opener. Minnesota fell victim in 2011, and it's hard not to see that being the case again. Not that I’m predicting a 58-0 blow-out, but anything less than a multiple touchdown win margin would be kind of disappointing.
This is primarily because of that quarterback issue: the Gophers can grind it out all they want with the running game, but it’s going to be a tall order for their offense to try to keep up with what an experienced Devin Gardner is going to do against their defense. A mediocre non-mobile sophomore QB probably won’t cut it against Mattison’s defense in Ann Arbor.
Unless Philip Nelson plays out of his mind. We’ll have an idea of whether he has that ability when Minnesota plays Iowa the week before; not that Iowa is any good these days, but it’ll be their first competitive game all season (Way to go scheduling the Western Illinois Fighting Leathernecks.) We’ll also get a good look at their receivers when they play Iowa. There’s a lot of unproven talent in that group, and they may given Michigan’s secondary some trouble with their size.
Either way, the Wolverines should have a field day on offense. Minnesota doesn’t have the athleticism to match up well against Michigan’s skill players, and questionable defensive line play will not last 60 minutes against two of the best tackles in the conference. The interior line just needs to keep Hageman blocked, and we’ll have a good idea of whether they can do that after the Notre Dame game.
Outlook: 6-6 overall, 2-6 B1G.
Wins: Entire non-conference schedule, Iowa, Indiana.
Losses: Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State.