Big Ten Team Profile: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Former WNUR Sports Director Jim Sannes (@JimSannes) previews the Minnesota Golden Gophers as part of our summer Big Ten Preview series. To check out our previous previews, click: Illinois | Purdue | Michigan | Indiana | NebraskaWhen I think of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, three things come to mind: 1) Jerry Kill could easily step in for Goldy Gopher with his shockingly similar appearance, 2) Donnell Kirkwood got a big booty, so I call him big booty, and 3) this is Kill’s year to solidify his status as a coach. The second point is by far the most important, but we’ll focus on the third regardless.
In Kill’s first two years as head coach at the once-great program, the team has gone from the deep, cavernous pit of despair that Tim Brewster created to a respectable team that should make a run at a second consecutive bowl appearance.
Kill’s track record shows that his third year with a program is the year in which the team takes its greatest leap forward. In his third year with Southern Illinois (nicknamed the Salukis, which is in contention for the greatest name for a college team ever, trailing only the UC-Santa Cruz Banana Slugs and Western Illinois Leathernecks), Kill led the team to a 10-2 record from 4-8 the previous season. In his third year at Northern Illinois, Kill took the Huskies to a 10-3 record and a MAC West division championship.
Last year, the Gophers finished 6-7 after a loss in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. This year, many will elevate their expectations after a disappointing 2-6 record in the Big Ten that saw their opponents outscore the youthful squad 220-137. This is the do-or-die year for Kill; not in the sense that it will determine his job status, but it will determine the state’s perception of the man assigned the task of resurrecting a team that hasn’t won a conference championship in 46 years.
On offense, the team returns 10 starters, including the big-bottomed running back Kirkwood. Kirkwood averaged 4.2 yards per carry, rushing for 926 yards and six touchdowns. Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have a reputation for creating a power running game, and this plays right into Kirkwood’s strengths.
Sophomore Rodrick Williams, Jr., will join Kirkwood in the backfield after coming on strong midway through last season. Williams, Jr., recorded nine or more carries four times in the final six games, finishing with 261 yards (4.6 yards per carry) with a pair of touchdowns. Williams, Jr., is another power back that will fit into Limegrover’s scheme.
The strength of this unit will be the offensive line. The line returns all five of its starters, including brothers Ed and Tommy Olson on the left side of the line. Ed is coming off of arm and ankle injuries, but has started eight or more games in each of his three years in the program. Tommy also missed six games due to injury after starting three his freshman year and will look for a healthy 2013 campaign.
In addition to Ed Olson at left tackle, the big uglies are anchored by center Zac Epping. Epping also started games at left guard and right guard last year due to other injuries on the line, but Epping excelled wherever Kill and Limegrover put him. He was named Minnesota’s offensive lineman of the year, and his presence in the middle this year should help the ground-and-pound run game to re-emerge in Minnesota.
It’ll be tough for the team to move the ball on the ground, however, if the passing game doesn’t improve from where it was last year. The Gophers finished 109th in the nation as they tried to find the guy they wanted running that offense. With MarQueis Gray gone to graduation and Max Shortell transferring, the job is true sophomore Philip Nelson’s to lose. In his first three games of the season against Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan, Nelson threw six touchdowns with only two interceptions. In his final four games, those two numbers flopped as Nelson tossed only two touchdowns with six interceptions, including a crucial interception against Texas Tech that ended any hopes of a comeback in the Meineke Car Care Bowl as the Gophers fell 34-31.
Nelson’s supporting cast of receivers has plenty of potential but not much past production. The team’s leading receiver, A.J. Barker, quit the team in a scathing Tumblr post… and then proceeded to be arrested for suspicion of marijuana possession about two months later. Good job, good effort, A.J. Barker. Credibility is not your best friend.
The team’s two, three and four receivers will all return in Isaac Fruechte, Derrick Engel and Devin Crawford-Tufts. Fruechte only had more than 30 yards in one of the team’s conference games, but his role will need to expand with the graduation of tight end John Rabe, another big body in the red zone. Engel led the group in yards with 375 yards, averaging 20.8 yards per reception. The former junior college transfer is one of the few players with big play potential on offense.
Two other players that will need to fill Rabe’s production are Lincoln Plsek and Drew Goodger. Plsek is projected to start with Goodger as the second tight end although Goodger finished third on the team with three receiving touchdowns last year.
The defense certainly outperformed the offense last year, finishing 45th in the nation in points allowed per game. The unit will return seven starters, but all four graduates made big impacts that the team will need to compensate for in 2013.
The biggest losses were in the secondary with the graduations of Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter. Stoudermire lead the team with 82 tackles, and Carter led with four interceptions, 15 pass breakups, and 19 passes defensed.
Despite the losses, the secondary should still be strong on this team. Corners Derrick Wells and Martez Shabazz both saw plenty of time last year, with Wells recording 74 tackles and two receptions while starting as a safety. Shabazz recorded a pick and three pass breakups in his first year after transferring from Trinity Valley Community College. He missed four games due to a dislocated toe (that’s a real thing?), but looks to make an impact alongside Wells this year.
Safeties Brock Vereen and Cedric Thompson are both coming off of 43-plus tackle seasons where each recorded two interceptions. Thompson came on as the starter late in the season and played exceptionally. Damarius Travis, who mostly saw time on special teams last year, could compete for playing time as well.
Up front, the team loses playmaker D.L. Wilhite, who finished with 8.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season. The second-leading sacker, defensive tackle RaShede Hageman, will return looking to improve on his six-sack, 7.5-tackles-for-loss season. Hageman is most likely the best pro prospect on the roster, contending with Ed Olson for that honor. Hageman provides disruption in both the ground and air game and should free up defensive ends to plenty of one-on-one looks.
The man that needs to step up here is Michael Amaefula. The names on this team are spectacular. Amaefula showed flashes of great play last year, yet lacked consistent ability to disturb the quarterback as he finished with 2.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. Hageman’s presence on the interior will be nullified if Amaefula and the other ends can’t bring the heat on the outside.
The linebacking core loses Mike Rallis and Keanan Cooper who combined for 149 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. Aaron Hill (74 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles) will lead this unit, but his supporting cast is the question here. Lamonte Edwards, a converted running back, will be asked to fill part of the void left by Rallis and Cooper, but enters the season with only 25 career tackles in his two seasons at linebacker. This team could struggle mightily to stop the run, as they did last year, allowing 172 yards on the ground per game.
UNLV – Home – August 29th
New Mexico State – Road – September 7th
Western Illinois – Home – September 14th
San Jose State – Home – September 21st
Iowa – Home – September 28th
Michigan – Road – October 5th
Northwestern – Road – October 19th
Nebraska – Home – October 26th
Indiana – Road – November 2nd
Penn State – Home – November 9th
Wisconsin – Home – November 11th
Michigan State – Road – November 30th
Sheesh, talk about a cupcake non-conference. Apparently Edina Middle School’s eighth grade team was booked for the month of September. With this rushing defense, Adonis Smith could have a pretty sweet coming out party in the season opener. That said, Minnesota should go undefeated in their first four games. The Big Ten is another story.
At best, this team may steal two non-conference games. Over the last three seasons, the Gophers have only defeated Iowa, Illinois and Purdue, totaling two conference wins each year. Looking at the schedule, it’s conceivable that Kill’s team could take a step back and win only one conference game as they drop both Purdue and Illinois from the schedule.
In the end, I’m going to go with a 6-7 record for the Gophers, as they grab two conference wins and go 4-0 in the non-conference before a loss in a bowl game. It looks like a disappointing season could be in store again for the Gopher-faithful, bucking Kill’s trend of greatly improving a team in his third year at the school.