2012 Minnesota Preview – The Big Step
Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Minnesota Golden Gophers
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In many ways, the Jerry Kill era couldn't have had a worse start.
Head coach: Jerry Kill
2nd year: 3-9
19th year overall: 130-82
Off. 23, Def. 24, ST 5
Lettermen Lost: 21
Ten Best Minnesota Players
1. QB MarQueis Gray, Sr.
2. CB Troy Stoudermire, Sr.
3. LB Mike Rallis, Sr.
4. OT Ed Olson, Jr.
5. FS/CB Brock Vereen, Jr.
6. DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Jr.
7. LB Keanon Cooper, Sr.
8. RB James Gillum, Jr.
9. QB Max Shortell, Soph.
10. CB Martez Shabazz, Jr.
Sep. 1 at UNLV
Sep. 8 New Hampshire
Sep. 15 Western Michigan
Sep. 22 Syracuse
Sep. 29 at Iowa
Oct. 6 OPEN DATE
Oct. 13 Northwestern
Oct. 20 at Wisconsin
Oct. 27 Purdue
Nov. 3 Michigan
Nov. 10 at Illinois
Nov. 17 at Nebraska
Nov. 24 Michigan State
With Kill's frightening seizure problems on the sidelines, the poor play on the field took a back seat early on in a 1-6 start lowlighted by inexcusable home losses to New Mexico State and North Dakota State and with the lone win coming over a bad Miami University team by six.
If the non-conference slate – despite the 19-17 close loss at USC - wasn't disastrous enough, the start of the Big Ten schedule took on a whole other world of bad losing to Michigan, Purdue and Nebraska by a combined score of 144 to 31. But then a funny thing started to happen – Minnesota wasn't that bad.
The 22-21 win over Iowa wasn't exactly a thing of beauty – with former Hawkeye Marcus Coker ripping off 252 rushing yards and two scores – but it was a nice late October win that seemed to spark something. Consider the seven-point loss at Michigan State like a win in terms of moral and blow off a blowout loss to a phenomenal Wisconsin team. The Gophers might have only finished 2-3 closing out the year against Illinois, but the team never quit and Kill and his staff appeared to be able to adapt and adjust a bit on the fly, especially on defense.
Very young, Minnesota is still building and still trying to find its place in the Big Ten world without the top talent to have any real shot at winning a title – at least at the moment. Kill is a terrific head coach who has succeeded at his other stops and might be the type of coach who could beat most coaches if the talent level was equal. And now the goal going forward will be for Kill and his staff to start putting the puzzle together.
Minnesota will never get the four-and-five star prospects like Ohio State and Michigan will bring in, and the overall team speed will never match the giants, but it's not like Wisconsin is blowing the recruiting rankings off the charts and Iowa has been able to recruit to a type and succeed. Kill is great at putting together lines, and as long as his offensive front is solid – he's creating a good young group – then he should be able to do what he wants. Now he and his staff have to find a few top-shelf offensive skill players to get excited about, and he has to focus on finding a group of killer linebackers to build around.
Going into this year, the Gophers should take another step forward with no seniors on a promising offensive line and with an improving defense that appears to have a good enough starting 11 to win with. If MarQueis Gray can end his career by living up to his promise and potential at quarterback, and if Kill's magic at creating powerhouse running games can start to kick in, all of a sudden Minnesota could be an interesting team to watch out for in a down year for the Big Ten.
What to watch for on offense: The maturation of the offensive line. The front five wasn't all that bad considering the offense sputtered and coughed for most of the season. The running game averaged a not-that-miserable 4.1 yards per carry and the pass protection wasn't awful considering Gray is a mobile quarterback allowing 22 sacks. But it was a stepping-stone season with freshmen Zac
Epping and Tommy Olson being throw to the wolves. Now those two are veteran sophomores, while Olson's brother, Ed, is a great-looking junior who should shine at left tackle. If this group can hold its own early on and can control the tempo and the clock against Western Michigan and Syracuse, the chances will be there for a strong first half of the season allowing the skill players more time to improve.
What to watch for on defense: The defensive tackles. The Gopher back seven should become a plus after being changed around a bit with the return of corner Troy Stoudermire helping the cause and with the linebacking corps looking potentially solid. While ends D.L. Wilhite and Ben Perry didn't do enough last year, they're experienced and athletic. It's not going to be a killer of a defense, but the pieces are in place to be better if the tackles do their job. JUCO transfer Roland Johnson isn't huge, but at 6-1 and 295 pounds he's a fireplug who's built to get good leverage on the nose. Ra'Shede Hageman is a 6-6, 300-pound big body with a great frame who, like Johnson, can get behind the line. If these two are terrific, the rest of the defense should take a big step forward.
The team will be far better if … it can start forcing a few turnovers. Minnesota wasn't too bad at turning the ball over with 17 on the year with just one lost fumble in the final four games, but the defense was a disaster when it came time to generate the big plays needed to turn things around. The secondary came up with a miserable four interceptions on the season with just one - ONE - over the final nine games. This was after coming up with a mere one fumble recovery in the first seven games and with just five on the season. Minnesota isn't good enough to not dominate in turnover margin, but it has a long way to go to be merely average in the category.
The schedule: Can the Gophers get off to a hot start? They showed last year that they could lose to anyone, and it's not a lock by any stretch that they can get by an experienced UNLV on the road to kick things off or against New Hampshire in the home opener. The UM offense will have to gear it up for Western Michigan, and then comes the supposedly hard non-conference date with Syracuse.
Can Minnesota pull off another shocking win over Iowa? If not, there's a week off before hosting Northwestern in a must-win game before going to Wisconsin. There aren't any major problems with road stretches, with back-to-back dates with Illinois and Nebraska in mid-November the only issue, but that's sandwiched in between nasty home games with Michigan and Michigan State. There's no Ohio State from the Leaders, and getting Purdue and Illinois isn't that bad.
Best offensive player: Senior QB MarQueis Gray. Even though he led the team with 966 rushing yards with six scores, he was a bit of a disappointment completing just 51% of his throws for 1,495 yards and eight touchdowns with eight picks. The former superstar dual-threat quarterback recruit and playmaking receiver is 6-4, 245-pounds and very, very physical. He has the tools and he has the experience, but he has to make everyone around him better and he has to be even more of a leader for a young offense that needs playmakers.
Best defensive player: Senior CB Troy Stoudermire. Former walk-on linebacker Mike Rallis is a good tackler and a feisty defender who should put up huge numbers after moving to the middle, and Brock Vereen is a versatile defensive back who can play corner or safety and put up huge numbers. However, the star of the D should be the very quick, very tough Stoudermire, an elite kickoff returner who was outstanding in the first few games making 24 tackles with two picks and three tackles for loss before hurting his arm and getting knocked out for the year. He got a fifth season of eligibility, and he should be able to anchor a promising secondary and should be able to shut down one side.
Key player to a successful season: Senior WR Brandon Green. The passing game didn't exactly light it up last season, but Da'Jon McKnight did a nice job making 51 catches for 760 yards and four scores. The second-leading receiver was tight end Collin McGarry, who finished with 16 grabs. Those two are gone, meaning Green has to use his excellent athleticism and upside to grow into a No. 1 target. If he isn't the man, then sophomore Marcus Jones has to use his quickness to become a dangerous part of the puzzle. Basically, the Gophers need receivers to boost up the Big Ten's second-worst passing game.
The season will be a success if … Minnesota wins six games and goes to a bowl. It's not as far-fetched as it might seem if the Gophers can beat the teams they're supposed to. They can't slip against UNLV or New Hampshire, and they have to find a way to keep up with Western Michigan's dangerous offense and get by Syracuse. Can they beat Northwestern and Purdue at home? Can they upset Iowa again? Six wins would be a huge season, but just being more competitive throughout would be good enough for now before potentially hitting their stride in 2013.
Key game: Aug. 30 at UNLV. Minnesota lost to a bad New Mexico State team and was stunned by New Mexico State. It also went 0-5 on the road and struggled way too much to come up with any offensive production away from Minneapolis. UNLV might not be great, but the Gophers can't take anyone lightly and they have to show right away that this is a new year and a new team. They have to kick things off on a Thursday night with a good, easy win to get off to a nice start. It should be an automatic for a Big Ten team to beat UNLV, and Minnesota has to play like a Big Ten team in non-conference play.
2011 Fun Stats:
- 1st Quarter Scoring: Opponents 106 – Minnesota 38
- Total Offense: Opponents 403 yards per game – Minnesota 310 yards per game
- Interceptions: Opponents 10 for 172 yards – Minnesota 4 for 19 yards
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