Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Golden Gophers fought through some tough circumstances throughout the 2011-12 season and, sadly, that continued into the offseason.
Jerry Kill's first season as the head coach ultimately netted a 3-9 record and quite a few questions, many of which surrounded coach Kill and his health. Kill, a kidney cancer survivor, suffered two seizures last year, including a scary one right on the sidelines against New Mexico State Sept. 10. The Gophers lost that game to fall to 0-2, and they were just 1-6 entering the final weekend of October. Although they managed wins over Iowa and Illinois late in the year, the Golden Gophers finished well out of bowl contention.
Then, in April, the team was dealt another devastating blow when former linebacker Gary Tinsley died suddenly in his apartment due to an enlarged heart. The players and coaches developed a unique bond through those unfortunate circumstances, one they hope will carry them back into the bowl picture in 2012-13.
OFFENSE: Senior quarterback MarQueis Gray, a superb athlete, is the straw that stirs the drink for the Minnesota offense. Gray threw for only 1,495 yards last year with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions, as he reached double-digit completions in only four games. The converted wide receiver did however, inflict plenty of damage on the ground, rushing for 966 yards (4.9 ypc) and six scores. If Minnesota is to take a step forward this year though, Gray needs to do a better job of using his legs to buy time and make big plays down the field, rather than simply tucking the ball and running at the first sign of trouble.
At his Big Ten media day press conference, coach Kill said he felt Gray will be one of the most exciting players in the nation to watch this season. However, much of that is up to his supporting cast.
"I think MarQueis, playing quarterback after one year, he's improved so much," Kill said. "I think the most important thing to our football team is what the people around him do."
The people around Gray are awfully light on gameday experience. The top returning rusher from last year is sophomore Donnell Kirkwood with 229 yards, although Minnesota is expected to employ a backfield by committee in hopes that one of the newcomers emerges.
Brandon Green highlights the receiving corps after hauling in 15 passes a year ago, tops among returnees. Likewise, the starting offensive line has some promise but is devoid of any seniors.
DEFENSE: While the offense struggled to put up points in 2011, the Minnesota defense failed to generate much in the department of pressure and turnovers, while giving up far too many big plays.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to be able to get more pressure on the quarterback without dialing up as many blitzes, which left last year's overmatched secondary unit exposed far too often. To accomplish that, he'll rely on a defensive line that is light on proven playmakers and a need to replace star defensive tackle Brandon Kirksey.
Senior Keanon Cooper heads up the linebacking corps from his WILL spot after racking up 77 tackles last year. In the secondary, junior cornerback Brock Vereen is the lone holdover from last season after starting every game.
The coaching staff will give the newcomers every opportunity to step in and help, and that includes intriguing juco corners Briean Boddy and Martez Shabazz.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Between Marcus Jones and Troy Stoudemire, the Gophers return a couple of home-run threats in the kick return game. Perhaps one of the two will also help out on punt returns.
An injury to junior kicker Chris Hawthorne midway through last season opened the door for senior Jordan Wettstein, who was perfect in six attempts, including a 51-yarder. He is looking to build on that success, while Hawthorne fights to get his starting job back. Junior punter Dan Orseske has an inconsistent but big leg (six punts of at least 50 yards). However, he has not shown much with his directional punting.
OUTLOOK: Gophers fans did not have much to cheer about last season, but coach Kill feels that his team will be better prepared to handle anything thrown in its direction this year.
"When adversity hits, you have to deal with it," coach Kill said. "You can't run away from it. We've had a fair share."
Talent-wise, there are a lot of unknowns. Minnesota ranked 110th in total offense in 2011 and is breaking in several new skill position players. A lot of pressure will fall on the shoulders of Gray, who has only been playing quarterback for one season.
The schedule is certainly manageable early on, but the Big Ten slate features tough road games with Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska. The final two home bouts are against Michigan and Michigan State. A lot must break right for the Golden Gophers to get back to postseason play, but given all they went through last year, it is not out of the realm of possibilities.
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