CFN Preview 2013 - Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota RB Donnell Kirkwood
Minnesota RB Donnell Kirkwood
Posted May 30, 2013 2013 Preview - Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Preview 2013

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Jerry Kill
3rd year: 9-16
20th year overall: 136-89
Ten Best Minnesota Players 1. DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Sr.
2. OT Ed Olson, Sr.
3. RB Donnell Kirkwood, Jr.
4. LB Aaron Hill, Sr.
5. C Zac Epping, Jr.
6. OT Josh Campion, Soph.
7. CB/S Derrick Wells, Jr.
8. S Brock Vereen, Sr.
9. LB De'Vondre Campbell, Soph.
10. OG Tommy Olson, Jr
2013 Schedule
8/31 UNLV
9/7 at New Mexico State
9/14 Western Illinois
9/21 San Jose State
9/28 Iowa
10/5 at Michigan
10/19 at Northwestern
10/26 Nebraska
11/2 at Indiana
11/9 Penn State
11/23 Wisconsin
11/30 at Michigan State
You know when there's a discussion about coaches and the superpower Saban or Krzyzewski type makes a crack about the best coach being somewhere out there doing big things with marginal talent, Jerry Kill is one of those guys.

There's pressure on the third-year head man – there's pressure on all college football coaches – and there could be problems if the record regresses after a step-forward 6-7 campaign, but he's a terrific talent who did wonders at Southern Illinois before cranking up Northern Illinois back into the MAC superpower it currently is. But surviving in the Big Ten requires having good, veteran players along with a talented coaching staff, and more than anything else, if you're not Ohio State or Michigan, it requires a personality.

Wisconsin does big things with the three-star recruits because it's able to get prospects to fit the mold. Iowa made a living off of turning decent players into try-hard terrors back when Kirk Ferentz was rocking and rolling. There's no reason Minnesota can't have the same sort of success.

The Gophers have the same regional recruiting restrictions as the Hawkeyes and Badgers, and they have to fight the same uphill battle against the uber-talented big boys in the conference, but now it's time for Kill to show why he was such a solid hire to pull the program up out of the Tim Brewster era nosedive. Now it's time for Minnesota to be a player.

Glen Mason made Minnesota interesting with a terrific ground game, and Brewster had the salesman thing down cold as he tried to bring in strong recruits from a national base for his spread offense. Kill is going back to what he knows – running the football – and after a few years of recruiting and tweaking, he has his guys in place to do it.

The O line might not be Wisconsin's in terms of bulk, but it should be a technically sound unit with the upside to continue to grow. All five starters are back with just one senior. The receivers are big and physical, and the backs are bigger and more physical. The quarterbacks simply have to be efficient, mistake-free and effective, and let everyone else do the work and hope Minnesota's run-first/run-often identity works.

The defense has to be even more aggressive than it was in its surprisingly strong 2012 season, and the special teams have to be razor-sharp and far better than they've been, but again, Kill has been building things up and now the depth and the options are in place.

It's not time to start booking tickets to Pasadena, but the Gophers are loaded with returning starters who should know what they're doing. Kill needs to have a Year Three like he did a SIU and NIU – going from 4-8 to 10-2 with the Salukis and 7-6 to 10-3 with the Huskies – to show the rest of the Big Ten that things really are starting to change.

Being a great coach comes down to wins and success. For Kill, it's also going to come down to making Minnesota a destination for recruits. Build the identity, and that will happen.

What to watch for on offense: Power running. It's time for Minnesota to start generating some thump. Kill loves to run the ball and wants the offense to control the time, tempo and clock. This year, he also wants the ground attack to start beating people up, and he has the horses to do it with all five starters returning to a decent offensive line and a big group of backs to thunder away. Donnell Kirkwood goes 233 pounds and Rodrick Williams is a 235-pounder, and both will blast away to take the pressure off the passing game.

What to watch for on defense: The outside. As the adage goes, you build a defense from the inside out, and the Gophers should be set up the middle with a good group of safeties, a solid set of tackles, and a good-looking JUCO transfer in Damien Wilson at linebacker. However, the corner situation is a bit of a question mark with Troy Stoudermire gone and defensive end is a concern losing top sacker D.L. Wilhite. There are options for all the spots, but it might take a while to find the right combination.

The team will be far better if … the passing game starts to click. Yes, the offense is going to revolve around the ground game even more, but the Gophers have to show some threat of an air attack or no one will worry about the deep ball. The offense sputtered and coughed late last year, and it was the passing attack that was the biggest culprit failing to hit 100 yards against Illinois, Nebraska or Michigan State over a three game stretch, and only going over 300 yards once over the final nine games. The 19 touchdown passes weren't all that bad, but nine of them came in the first three games.

The schedule: It's Minnesota, so it's not going to extend itself too much in non-conference play. Even so, UNLV was a tough out last year, but this time it's in Minneapolis. Going to New Mexico State should be light and breezy and Western Illinois shouldn't be a problem, but San Jose State will be a rough battle with its dangerous and efficient passing game.

Can the Gophers start out the Big Ten season with a bang beating Iowa in a rivalry game? They need to with road games at Michigan and Northwestern and a home date against Nebraska to follow. Beating Indiana on the road and getting by Penn State at home could be a must for a bowl game with Wisconsin and a road trip to Michigan State to close things out.

Best offensive player: Senior OT Ed Olson. Running back Donnell Kirkwood should shine with the changes to the offense, but it's Olson who's the leader and main man of a veteran line that should be the big difference for the Gophers. The ground game is going to get stronger and better, and Olson – along with brother Tommy Olson at guard on the left side – will lead the charge. At 6-7 and 309 pounds, he's very tall with a great frame. Tough to get around, he's growing into a whale of a pass protector.

Best defensive player: Senior NT Ra'Shede Hageman. The hope was for the big man to be a dominant force on the inside, and he did the job as a great interior pass rusher and a nice run stopper. He might not be a true anchor on the nose, but he's a dangerous all-around playmaker who'll be the one everyone works around. Teams will have to worry about him on the inside, hopefully opening things up on the outside.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Philip Nelson. The team is being set up to be solid on defense and rely on the ground game offensively, but to come up with wins over the better Big Ten teams, the passing game has to be more efficient, more explosive and more effective. Nelson, or freshmen Mitch Leidner or Chris Streveler, have to bring more big plays to the offense and have to keep the chains moving. Nelson has the experience, upside and moxie, but he needs to be better after completing just 49% of his passes.

The season will be a success if … the Gophers come up with a winning record and a few big upsets. Yeah, they went 6-7 last season and got to a bowl game, but they feasted off the cupcakes, got by Syracuse, and beat mediocre Purdue and Illinois teams to get to six wins. It was a terrific step forward for a program that fell on hard times, but in Kill's third season it's time to start making some more progress. Beating the mediocre teams is a must, but beating a Nebraska or Wisconsin at home would truly make some noise.

Key game: Sept. 28 vs. Iowa. The schedule isn't too bad to start the season, but with road games at Michigan and Northwestern and a home date against Nebraska to follow, the Gophers can't afford to give away the Big Ten opener against the hated Hawkeyes. There aren't any breaks late in the conference slate, either, and while there should be some upsets along the way, every win is critical to go bowling. Beating Iowa could become a must.

2012 Fun Stats:
- Penalties: Opponents 95 for 834 yards – Minnesota 81 for 653 yards
- Time of Possession: Minnesota 31:03 – Opponents 28:57
- Fourth Quarter Scoring: Opponents 78 – Minnesota 56
- 2013 Minnesota Preview | 2013 Minnesota Offense
- 2013 Minnesota Defense | 2013 Minnesota Depth Chart