Jerry Kill has been with the Minnesota Golden Gophers for three full seasons, and the program has had an improved record every year he's been there. In 2011, Minnesota went 3-9, followed by 6-7 in 2012, and last year, the Golden Gophers broke through with an impressive 8-5 season. This mirrors Kill's three-year record at Northern Illinois when the team went from six wins to seven wins to 11 wins.
Much of the success at both schools has been built on the back of strong defenses and hard-nosed running games; however, his best NIU squad had something his Golden Gophers have yet to demonstrate: superior quarterback play. This will be the necessary next step if Kill is to take his program to the next level.
2013 scoring offense: 25.7 PPG (11th in the conference), total offense: 343.3 YPG (11th), rushing YPC: 4.33 (fifth), passing efficiency: 121.46 (11th)
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 10.6
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Ninth (2012)
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Last (2009, 2011)
Returning starters: QB Mitch Leidner; RB David Cobb; TEs Maxx Williams, Drew Goodger; WR Drew Wolitarsky; OL Brian Bobek, Caleb Bak, Zac Epping, Josh Campion, Tommy Olson, Ben Lauer
Open Positions: WR
Offensive Formation: Multiple
Offensive Philosophy: Establish run
Jerry Kill's offense begins and ends with the run. In six years of head coaching at the FBS level, his teams have run 4,971 plays, 3,185 of which have been rushing plays. That is 64.1 percent. For a point of reference, Wisconsin, which is known as the most rush-heavy of teams in a rush-heavy conference, ran on 61.1 percent of its offensive plays last year. Ideally, Kill wants that running game to come from multiple directions. He wants a dual-threat quarterback to go along with his featured running back.
Though his passing game is downplayed, he requires precision and efficiency from his quarterback and receivers. In Kill's last two years at NIU, quarterback Chandler Harnish completed over 64 percent of his passes. This is something that Minnesota quarterbacks under Kill have yet to approach. In fact, Kill's most successful Minnesota quarterback from a pass completion viewpoint was Max Shortell in 2012, though he only completed 56 percent of his 116 attempts.
If the offense is to break through, it will need a more efficient, consistent passing game.
In three years, Kill has yet to start one quarterback for the entire season. Next year, sophomore Mitch Leidner will begin the year as the starter and it's hard to see anybody unseating him. Last year, Leidner started four games, sharing quarterback duties with the departed Phillp Nelson. Despite coming to the Gophers as a pocket passer, Leidner was successful on his feet, finishing as Minnesota's second-leading rusher with 407 yards and seven touchdowns. As a passer, he was mediocre, completing 55.1 percent of his 78 passing attempts for a 131.92 quarterback rating. If anybody does unseat Leidner, it will be true freshman Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, who enrolled early to participate in spring practices. If he does unseat Leidner then things are likely not rosy in Gopherland.
Senior David Cobb may be the most underrated running back in a conference full of underrated running backs. Last season, he ran for 1,202 yards, 5.07 YPC and seven touchdowns, despite not becoming the featured back until the middle of the season. Perhaps most impressively, he was one of only two backs to put up over 100 yards against Michigan State's No. 1-in-the-country defense. Cobb is the best of Minnesota's rushers, but he is backed up by experienced veterans who can be depended upon.
Receiver has been Kill's weakest position group in his three years in Minneapolis. Kill likes to spread the ball around, but in the last two years, he hasn't fielded one receiver who has had more then 30 receptions. Last year's top wide receiver is gone, but as he had only 25 receptions, there isn't much production that has to be replaced. Sophomore Wolitarsky caught 15 passes as a true freshman. The other starting spot will be either senior Isaac Fruechte, junior K.J. Maye or converted quarterback, sophomore Donovahn Jones. The Gophers have two experienced tight ends. Sophomore Williams was Minnesota's leading pass catcher last year with 25 catches for 417 yards and five touchdowns, while senior Goodger is more of a blocker.
Offensive line will be a strength for Minnesota, as it returns eight players with starting experience, which adds up to the fourth-most experienced line in the country according to Phil Steele. That unit did lead the way to 2013's strong rushing attack, but had problems protecting its quarterback, allowing 27 sacks. That is far too many for a team that was 120th nationally with 267 passing attempts; it is approximately one sack per every nine attempts.
Despite its reliance on a rushing game, the offense will flourish based on how much its passing game improves. Furthermore, it is more than the quarterback, as the receivers and blockers have to do their part. In 2014, look for overall offensive improvement, but it's difficult to see Leidner taking over this offense the way Harnish did at NIU under Kill. This is especially true with limited receiving options.
2013 scoring defense: 22.2 (fourth in the conference), total defense: 373.2 YPG (sixth), rushing YPC allowed: 4.54 YPC (ninth), passing efficiency allowed: 127.8 (eighth)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 7.4
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: fourth (2013)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 11th (2011)
Returning starters: DEs Theiren Cockran, Michael Amaefula; NT Cameron Botticelli; LB Damien Wilson; CBs Eric Murray, Derrick Wells; S's Cedric Thompson, Antonio Johnson
Open positions: DT, LB, CB
Defensive formation: 4-3
Defensive philosophy: Control front with rotating cast of linemen, back seven clean up
While the offense under Jerry Kill has steadily improved, the defense has improved dramatically. Kill and his defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys took the mess they inherited from former head coach Tim Brewster and have improved every season. Kill's and Claeys' philosophy starts up front, where they like to shuffle at least eight players in and out of the game. Last year, eight defensive linemen registered at least 10 tackles, even though the same four started every game. Compare this to Iowa, for example, where six lineman registered 10-or-more tackles, and that was with one major injury to a starter.
Kill wants his front to control the line of scrimmage and generate a pass rush. In his six years of head coaching experience, Kill has only twice had a non-lineman who had more than two sacks in a season. In short, Kill doesn't blitz very much. His back seven need to remain clean and take care of rushers and coverage.
The front returns three starters, though the one missing starter is Ra'Shede Hageman who was the first Minnesota defensive lineman since 1976 drafted above the fourth round. He will be tough to replace. The remaining returning starters include the Gophers' leading pass rusher—Cockran—who led the team with 7.5 sacks and was selected as a second-team all-conference player. Again, Kill likes to rotate his line, and most of his returning players are experienced and understand their roles.
Two starters depart at linebacker, but the Gophers return Wilson, who had the second-most tackles on the team. Juco-transfer De'Vondre Campbell will likely take over weak-side duties; he grabbed three starts last year and was eighth on the team in total tackles. That leaves the strong-side linebacker, which is wide open and will need somebody to step up. Sophomore Jack Lynn was penciled in as the starter after spring practices.
As with the front, Kill likes sub packages, which leaves him with a constant carousel of experience in the backfield. The secondary loeses an all-conference defensive back in Brock Vereen. However, the player likely to take his place—junior Briean Boddy-Calhoun—started two games last year. He will be pushed by senior Derrick Wells, who had four starts last season, but lost his position due to performance.
The worrisome issue with Minnesota is it was fourth in conference-scoring defense, but it was hardly an overwhelming rush or pass defense. In fact, its 4.54 YPC was an underwhelming 83rd in the nation. This leads one to conclude that beneficial field position and some degree of luck played a hand in the Golden Gophers' final defensive output. Despite the loss of two key playmakers, look for the overall Minnesota defense to improve, but the scoring defense likely will remain about the same if it doesn't dip a bit.
Minnesota returns its top kick and punt returner in defensive back Marcus Jones. Last year, he led the Gophers to the sixth-ranked punt and kick return units in the conference, and that was coming off a torn ACL.
Junior Peter Mortell will reprise his punting duties in which he was second in the conference in gross average. Minnesota will have to replace its field goal kicker. Red-shirt freshman and scholarship athlete Ryan Santoso will likely win the job.
Lastly, the Gophers ranked 11th in the conference in punt-return average allowed and sixth in kick return average.
Overall, this can be a top group if Santoso can play well.
A pound sign—#—indicates must-win for Minnesota.
An exclamation point—!—indicates a probable loss.
A dollar sign—$—indicates a swing game.
08/28: Eastern Illinois (FCS) #
09/06: Middle Tennessee #
09/13: at TCU $
09/20: San Jose State #
09/27: at Michigan !
10/11: Northwestern $
10/18: Purdue #
10/25: at Illinois $
11/08: Iowa $
11/15: Ohio State !
11/22: at Nebraska !
11/29: at Wisconsin !
Nobody is going to confuse the Minnesota passing game with Baylor's, but it does enough to keep opposing defenses honest. Meanwhile, the rushing game is dominant, behind only Wisconsin and Ohio State in the conference. The defense continues to move forward under Kill, establishing itself as a consistent bulwark in the Big Ten.
The Golden Gophers sweep the out-of-conference (OOC), surprise Michigan in Ann Arbor and head into November ranked and a perfect 8-0. However, the buck stops there. Minnesota wins one of its final four games, finishing 9-3, 5-3 in conference. That marks four straight years of tangible improvement under Jerry Kill.
The passing game is a trainwreck, despite a strong running game to keep defenses guessing. Meanwhile, the bounces stop going the Gophers' way on defense. Though the overall defense isn't bad, last year's statistics prove illusory.
Minnesota goes 3-1 OOC, losing by 10 points to a solid TCU team. It continues its futility in the Little Brown Jug game, and then loses a close one to Northwestern. The Golden Gophers come back with wins against Purdue and Illinois, but lose the final four games of the season, finishing 5-7 (2-6 in conference).
The Golden Gophers are at a crossroads, and how they do will depend almost entirely on the passing game. If the passing game can be efficient and occassionaly explosive—it was last in the Big Ten in passing plays of 10-yards-or-more—the overall offense can become much more dangerous. This will lead to Minnesota becoming a true threat to upper-tier teams. If the passing game can't move forward then the offense will remain one-dimensional. This will put an undue burden on the running game and the defense, and leave the Gophers helpless against stronger teams.
There will be improvement in the passing game, but not enough to make a substantial difference. This will be complicated by a run of bad luck for the defense. In effect, Minnesota will beat the weak teams on its schedule—the three OOC cupcakes, plus Purdue and Illinois—and will grab a close win over Northwestern in what sets up as a trap game for the Wildcats. However, the stronger teams will mostly push the Gophers around. This will be the first year in which Jerry Kill doesn't see tangible improvement from his program.
Final Record: 6-6 (3-5 in conference)
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