MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
2012 Record: 6-7, 2-6 Big Ten. Tied for 5th in Legends Division.
Head Coach: Jerry Kill, 3rd year at Minnesota (9-16). 32-32 overall in 6 seasons.
Offensive Starters Returning: 9
Defensive Starters Returning: 7
One wonders if Minnesota will ever get it right.
Former Buckeye football player and assistant coach, Glen Mason, was hired following the conclusion of the 1996 season to replace Jim Wacker, who guided the Golden Gophers to a record of 16-39 during a span of five years.
During his tenure at Minnesota from 1997-2006, Mason was 64-57 and led the Gophers to seven postseason bowls trips in 10 seasons. He also named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1999 after leading Minnesota to an 8-4 mark that included a 24-23 win over No. 2 Penn State in Happy Valley.
The 2003 season was the best out of the 10 for Mason and the Gophers after posting a 10-3 overall record and defeated Oregon in the Sun Bowl.
But with Mason in control in Minneapolis, the Maroon and Gold could only muster seven wins the next two seasons and six in his final year. Minnesota then fired Mason two days after the Gophers blew a 31-point third quarter lead against Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl and exactly one year after signing a four-year contract extension.
Mason was replaced by Tim Brewster, who had never been a head coach on the college level prior to his employment at the University of Minnesota. That experiment failed miserably as Brewster was just 15-30 in three-plus seasons before he was relieved of his duties and had his contract terminated on October 17, 2010. Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Horton assumed the duties of head coach for the remainder of the 2010 season.
On Dec. 7, 2010, Jerry Kill was named head coach of the football program, the fourth head coach in as many years.
Kill came to Minnesota after stops at Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. Kill’s squads from Southern Illinois advance to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs five out of the seven season he was in Carbondale, and all three of his teams at Northern Illinois received postseason bowl invites.
The Gophers were 3-9 in Kill’s first season in 2011, but reached a bowl game and finished 6-7 in 2012. Kill’s reputation as a turnaround artist continued as Minnesota doubled its win total while leading the Gophers to a bowl game for the first time since 2009.
But can the Gophers be better this year? Clearly, I’m not a Minnesota fan, but you still want to root for Kill, who has battled seizures and kidney cancer over the years.
The good news is that the Gophers return nine starters of offense and seven on defense, so it’s possible Minnesota can be even better in 2013.
A total of nine starters return on offense from last year’s team that include junior running back Donnell Kirkwood, who ran for 926 yards on 218 attempts and six touchdowns, along with sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson, who threw for 873 yards on 49.3 percent (75-152) passing with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.
One player not returning, though, is wide receiver A.J. Barker (no relation), who quit the team midseason after a dispute with Kill, citing mistreatment following an ankle injury. Barker was the Gophers’ leading receiver in 2012 after catching 30 passes for 577 yards and seven touchdowns before suffering a sprained ankle against Purdue on October 27. He left the team several weeks later.
With Barker no longer in the program, senior WR Derrick Engel and junior WR Isaac Fruechte are Gophers’ top returning pass catchers. Engel had 18 receptions for 375 yards and a touchdown, while Fruechte hauled in 19 balls for 256 yards and two TDs.
On the offensive line, five different players who made starts last season return with senior LT Ed Olson, sophomore LG/C Jon Christenson, junior LG/C Zac Epping, junior RG Caleb Bak, and sophomore RT Josh Campion. The Gophers will also have the services of junior C Brian Bobek, a transfer from Ohio State.
On the defensive side of the ball, seven different players who cracked the starting lineup in 2012 return, including three on the D-line with junior DE Michael Amaefula, senior DT Ra’Shede Hageman, and junior NT Cameron Botticelli. Hageman topped the roster with six sacks last season.
Three starters return in the secondary, led by junior cornerback Derrick Wells, Minnesota’s top returning tackler with 74 stops last season. Wells also had a team-high two interceptions and 10 pass breakups.
Conclusion and Prediction:
Last season, Minnesota went 6-7 overall, but only won two games in the Big Ten. One of their major problems from a year ago was the Gophers’ lack of offense, averaging only 22.1 points (9th B1G/94th NCAA) and 321.4 yards (10th B1G/108th NCAA) per game.
In 2012, Minnesota used three quarterbacks, but Max Shortell transferred to Jacksonville State and MarQueis Gray exhausted his eligibility, leaving Nelson as the heir apparent even though his stats were not as good as the other two QBs, Shortell and Gray. Minnesota’s only other option at QB is redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner, a three-star recruit that had just one offer from an FBS school.
Defensively, the Gophers’ should be fairly decent, but can they score enough points.
The non-conference portion of the schedule is rather easy, but I predict that Minnesota will not win more than a game or two once the Big Ten starts. I don’t even think the Gophers will be bowl eligible, going 5-7.