2011 Minnesota Preview – Offense
Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Minnesota Golden Gopher Offense
Preview 2011 - Offense
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What You Need To Know:
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover knows how to get the ground game moving. He has been head coach Jerry Kill's main man for years, and he's largely responsible for turning Northern Illinois into an unstoppable MAC machine – just ask Gopher fans about last year's loss. He has good tools to work with, led by QB MarQueis Gray, the one-time superstar recruit who should be in the right fit. There will be a good rotation of backs with some bright young players to mix in with the established veterans, and WR Da'Jon McKnight and TE Eric Lair are among the best at the Big Ten at their respective positions. The key, though, will be the line that gets just two starters back, but is athletic and should be good with little bit of time. Limegrover also coaches the offensive front.
Star of the offense: Junior QB MarQueis Gray
Passing: MarQueis Gray
2-8, 24 yds, 0 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Duane Bennett
123 carries, 529 yds, 3 TD
Receiving: Da'Jon McKnight
48 catches, 750 yds, 10 TD
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior C Ryan Wynn
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman OT Jimmy Gjere
Best pro prospect: Senior WR Da'Jon McKnight
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McKnight, 2) TE Eric Lair, 3) Gray
Strength of the offense: Backfield, Coaching Staff
Weakness of the offense: Veteran Passers, Line Experience
State of the Unit: Adam Weber wasn't able to win a whole bunch of games, but he was the Minnesota offense over the last four seasons finishing his career with 10,917 passing yards, 72 touchdowns, and 873 rushing yards and ten scores. While he didn't necessarily improve over his 50 games of service, he was reliable. Now it's time for an upgrade. The new coaching staff will want more running out of the quarterbacks, and it'll get it.
Is it finally the time for MarQueis "O.J." Gray to finally live up to his potential? One the nation's top dual-threat spread quarterbacks coming out of high school, he has had a rough career. First he wasn't eligible, then the offense changed from the spread, and then he was moved to wide receiver for a stretch. The 6-4, 229-pound junior has tremendous athleticism, a live arm, and the talent and ability to have been an Elite 11 Quarterback camper in high school. After missing his senior year with a broken arm, several schools soured on him, Minnesota kept calling, and now he might be the franchise. After finishing second on the team with 42 catches for 587 yards and five scores, and running for 110 yards and a score, it's his quarterback job now
For the time being, 6-3, 198-pound Tom Parish is the No. 2 quarterback in the mix, after earning the spot this spring. While he's not the most accurate of passers, he has a good, live arm, excellent mobility, and a maturity that goes beyond his redshirt freshman status. He'll battle with several interesting prospects like sophomore Moses Alipate, a HUGE 6-5, 281-pound bomber who's a true pro-style passer. He has a live arm, good running skills, and the size and athleticism to be a dangerous all-around playmaker if he gets more of a shot. However, the coaching staff would like him to get the weight down even more after working on it this spring.
Watch Out For … Gray to be terrific. THIS is the offense for him. He wasn't really a true spread quarterback, and he wasn't exactly suited for a pro-style attack. He should be great as a do-it-all playmaker who can run and throw equally well.
Strength: Arms. Gray has a cannon, Parish can wing it, and Alipate can push the ball down the field with a flick of his wrist. Getting vertical won't be an issue.
Weakness: Experience. It's seems like Gray has been around since the Joe Salem era, but he has only completed 8-of-23 career passes for 86 yards. The offense relied on Weber for the past four seasons, and Gray has to go from promising reserve to star in a hurry.
Outlook: The quarterbacks aren't going to be asked to do everything for a Jerry Kill offense that likes to pound away with the running backs, but Gray should be ready to shine. It'll take a little while to settle into the right pecking order on the depth chart, but if this offseason was any indication, Gray is ready. He has done absolutely everything the coaching staff has wanted, and he should be among the Big Ten's newest stars.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: 260 yards per game, 3,645 yards, and 42 touchdowns in 2010. 2,537 yards and 27 rushing touchdowns in 2009. Northern Illinois destroyed teams with its ground game, including 297 yards and two scores in last year's 34-23 win over Minnesota, and now the hope will be for the Gophers to generate some of the same production. It might not be back to the days of Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III, but the Gopher attack, helped by the running of QB MarQueis Gray, should be far better after averaging a mere 135 yards per game with 14 touchdowns.
There will be a good battle for carries, but several backs will get work. The leader of the pack will likely be senior Duane Bennett, a dangerous runner who came back from a 2008 knee injury to become one of the team's most reliable backs starting out last year with 30 carries for 187 yards against Middle Tennessee and following it up with 104 yards and two touchdowns against North Dakota. However, the 5-9, 210-pounder saw his workload as a runner fall off the map and finished with just 529 yards and three scores, while catching 33 passes for 319 yards and a score.
Senior DeLeon Eskridge ended up as the team's leading back finishing with 698 yards and seven scores, but he only averaged 3.6 yards per carry. Expected to be a major factor in the attack, he left the team for personal reasons and isn't expected to return. He'll be missed
after taking on the workload over the second half of
the season, highlighted by a three-score day against
Illinois and 111 yards against Penn State. He might not have been the receiver that Bennett is, but the 5-11, 203-pounder was a tougher runner.
There's hope for 5-10, 215-pound redshirt freshman Donnell Kirkwood to quickly rise up and become a star. He was going to be a big part of the mix, running 27 times for 107 yards, but he suffered a tough leg injury and was knocked out for the year. On the plus side, he got a medical hardship and kept a year of eligibility. He'll combine with 6-2, 210-pound redshirt freshman Lamonte Edwards, who brings more toughness to the backfield for his wide receiver size. Originally considered a top linebacker recruit, he's going to get chances to run inside or out.
Watch Out For … A good rotation. Northern Illinois under Kill didn't always use a slew of backs and worked Chad Spann until he dropped, but that might not be the case with Bennett and Kirkwood each good enough to give the other a break. Kirkwood could turn out to be the best of the lot.
Strength: Experience. The Gopher backs haven't set the world on fire, but Bennett is a veteran senior who knows what he's doing. If the blocking is there, the production will follow.
Weakness: A sure-thing star. Eskridge and Bennett each got their chances to shine over the last few years, and each one has been decent, but neither one scared Big Ten defensive coordinators. The offense and the system have to make the backs, because it probably won't be the other way around, especially with Eskridge gone..
Outlook: A total nightmare two years ago, the ground game was okay last year after the old coaching staff made more of a commitment to pounding away. The new staff, though, knows how to run the ball, and the production will come. It's not going to be a night-and-day difference from Day One, but with a decent mix of veterans and dangerous young backups, even with Eskridge done, this should be the best ground game since the Glen Mason era.
Unit Rating: 6.5
State of the Unit: The Gopher offense needed a few receivers to step up and become factors, and it got what it needed. There's good experience and nice speed to play around with, but now the receivers have to know their roles; they need to block a bit more. With No. 2 receiver MarQueis Gray now under center, jobs are open for some young targets to make an impact, but there were several bumps and bruises this spring to hamper the development.
Two year ago, star receiver Eric Decker got hurt and the offense needed a go-to guy. Senior Da'Jon McKnight helped the cause making all 17 of his grabs in the final five games of the 2009 season. Last year, the 6-3, 214-pounder led the team with 48 catches for 758 yards and ten touchdowns with three scores against Penn State. The speed is there to stretch the field, he's physical, and he has a nose to coming up with big plays around the goal line.
Junior Brandon Green is back after missing almost all of last year with a knee injury. He got the call as a true freshman making 21 catches, and followed it up with another 21 catch season. Just when he was about to break out as a punt returner, he got hurt. Arguably the team's most athletic receiver, he has the experience and the quickness to be dangerous on the other side of McKnight. He'll be backed up by junior Ge'Shaun Harris, a 6-3, 226-pound JUCO transfer who got to school early and did enough to secure a key backup spot. A great pickup for the program, he has an excellent combination of speed and size and will be a home run hitter.
5-8, 168-pound freshman Marcus Jones was considered a good corner prospect, but Minnesota wanted him to be a receiver and kick returner. While he doesn't have the size, he's a speedster who can hit the home run from anywhere on the field. The coaching staff will use him in a variety of ways, and he'll get the start in the slot. He'll be backed up by quarterback prospect J.D. Pride, a 6-1, 203-pounder with a good arm and nice speed.
The Gophers have a dangerous weapon in tight end Eric Lair, who's back to his starting spot after catching 39 passes for 526 yards and two scores. Built like a big wide receiver, the 6-3, 239-pound senior is a great athlete who can stretch the field as more than just a safety valve. Fast, he'll even get the ball as a runner once in a while. 6-4, 248-pound junior John Rabe spent last year at Ellsworth Community College and took over the backup job. Bigger than Lair, he can be used as a physical blocker, but he's a receiver with nice hands.
Sophomore Victor Keise is a talented 6-1, 176-pound prospect from Miami who has some of the best hands on the team and isn't afraid to make the tough grabs across the middle. He's the type of potential playmaker who could come up with big yards after the catch, but he only caught one pass for one yard last year.
Watch Out For … Green. He has the speed and jump-out-of-the-stadium athleticism to become a gamebreaker. He'll see plenty of single coverage, and he has to take advantage.
Strength: McKnight and Lair. This is a relatively young, emerging receiving corps, and it needs two veterans like McKnight and Lair, who'll be in the hunt for all-star honors, to be steady. They will be.
Weakness: Injuries and youth. The Gophers have a slew of bumps and bruises to deal with, and it made it hard at times this spring. It shouldn't be a problem, though, once fall camp starts. The big key will be for a true freshman in Jones, and several other untested players, to shine right away.
Outlook: Minnesota's receivers won't be along for the ride, but the offense will more than likely revolve around the ground game first. That doesn't mean McKnight and Lair will be ignored, but it'll be vital for other receivers to become big parts of the equation in a big hurry considering the third-leading returning wide receiver had just one catch.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: The line did its job. All five starters returned last year, and while the running game wasn't anything special, the pass protection was excellent. The Gophers finished 29th in the nation in sacks allowed, but it didn't blast away well enough for the running game. Two starters return and there's work to be done, but the line should be decent with a little more time.
Back at left tackle is sophomore Ed Olson after starting nine times and missing time late. He was pushing hard for time at right tackle and ended up on the other side, and he proved to be a good, promising all-around blocker. At 6-7, 302 pounds he's tall and carries his weight well, and now he's a bit bigger after starting out at around 285 pounds. He'll be backed up by redshirt freshman Matt Eggen, a 6-5, 281-pound athlete who needs a little more time in the weight room.
Also returning up front is veteran Chris Bunders after starting every game over the last two seasons. At 6-3 and 304 pounds, the senior has found a home at left guard after starting out his career at tackle. He has the feet, the size and experience, and while he's not necessarily an anchor, he's reliable. Backup Zach Mottla is a 6-2, 287-pound walk-on, but the sophomore is a feisty, physical blocker.
Senior Ryan Orton started late last year at right guard, getting the call against Michigan State and Illinois and starting against Northwestern at left tackle, and now he's the main man taking over the guard spot full time from Matt Carufel. He hasn't quite lived up to his expectations after coming in as a good recruit, but he's 6-4, 291 pounds and strong. 6-5, 304-pound true freshman Josh Champion brings more weight to the position.
One of the biggest keys to the line will be replacing veteran D.J. Burris at center, but 6-5, 295-pound senior Ryan Wynn should be ready. One of the team's most versatile blockers, he started every game in 2008 at right tackle but missed all of 2009 with a back injury. He only saw three games of action and got a start late against Illinois, but when he's right he's a talented blocker who can be a good leader up front. Next year, the job will be redshirt freshman Zac Epping's, a 6-2, 295-pound prospect with terrific toughness and upside.
6-7, 308-pound Jimmy Gjere was a fantastic get for the Gophers. While many fretted over not getting superstar prospect Seantrell Henderson, Gjere was the second-ranked tackle prospect in the state and he could've gone anywhere with Wisconsin and Iowa fighting it out for him. He has the NFL frame and upside, and while he has tremendous talent, he'll be a right tackle early on and could end up moving to the left side.
Watch Out For … Gjere. Olson and Bunders will be the veterans the line revolves around on the left side, but Gjere might be the team's best all-around blocker and has the biggest upside. In a little bit of time, he could be the anchor to work the line around for the next four years.
Strength: Quickness. The old Gopher coaching staff wanted to go leaner and more athletic, and while there's decent size with three 300-pounders, there aren't any massive beefeaters who can't move.
Weakness: Veteran reserves. Three new starters, even with two seniors now playing big roles, are going to make it a big of a transitional period. The backups are all very, very young and very, very green. There isn't enough there to form a strong rotation right away.
Outlook: The line turned out to be a plus at times, even though there were too many combinations and a slew of little injuries. It'll take a little while for the right combination to come together, but Olson and Bunders are solid, Gjere could be great, and there's good hope. Kill knows how to create a killer run blocking unit, and this one should get the job done by the second half of the year.
Unit Rating: 6.5
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