Few coaches get more out of their team than Jerry Kill at Minnesota. It's easy to forget that the Golden Gophers were one half away from winning the Big Ten West Division last fall. With just four starters back on offense, Kill knows his offense has some work to do this summer. Luckily, the defense brings back seven starters, so expect Minnesota to win low-scoring games early in the year while the offense gets up to speed.
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Previewing Minnesota’s Offense for 2015
Minnesota has steadily improved in each of Jerry Kill’s four seasons, but to take the next step, the passing game must improve. Junior quarterback Mitch Leidner returns to a passing attack that ranked 119th nationally last year.
The Gophers need to replace their two best playmakers on offense, as running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams are both headed to the NFL. Minnesota installed a new, no-huddle offense this spring and worked extensively on its short passing game. The goal is to get the ball out of Leidner’s hands more quickly.
“We can’t lose our identity of who we are,” Kill says. “We’re going to run the football. But I think we win two or three more games last year if we throw it a little bit better. That’s our fault (as coaches), not the kids’ fault.”
The battle for the 300-plus carries that went to Cobb last year starts with senior Rodrick Williams and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith. The receiving corps needs a boost, and the Gophers hope for big things from four redshirt freshmen — Jeff Jones, Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and Melvin Holland Jr.
Previewing Minnesota’s Defense for 2015
Defense has been a strength under Kill, and this could be defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys’ stingiest bunch yet. The Gophers will start four seniors in the secondary, including All-Big Ten cornerbacks Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray. Boddy-Calhoun had five interceptions last year, compared to one for Murray, but that’s because teams often avoid Murray altogether.
After ranking ninth in the Big Ten in sacks last year (2.08 per game), the Gophers should have a better pass rush. Defensive end Hank Ekpe, who was limited with a severe sinus infection last year, was one of the most impressive players in spring camp. Another defensive end, Theiren Cockran, had 7.5 sacks in 2013. The Gophers must replace middle linebacker Damien Wilson, but Claeys felt like the linebackers were the most pleasant surprise this spring. It’s unclear who will start in Wilson’s place — Cody Poock or Everett Williams — but Claeys likes both options.
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Previewing Minnesota’s Specialists for 2015
Kill’s teams are usually strong on special teams, and this unit could be one of his best. Senior Peter Mortell was the Big Ten Punter of the Year last season, leading the conference with a 45.2-yard average. Sophomore kicker Ryan Santoso hit a 56-yard field goal in the spring game. Craig James was the Big Ten’s fifth-leading punt returner last year, and Jalen Myrick was the conference’s second-leading kickoff returner.
Kill was named Big Ten Coach of the Year last season, and he’ll need to work more magic this year against a schedule that includes TCU and Ohio State. The coaches are confident they have enough running back talent to replace Cobb, but there’s no substitute for a dynamic tight end like Williams. Leidner was instrumental in all five Big Ten wins last year. He needs to be more consistent. If the offense finds a way, this won’t be a fun team to play.
“We’ve got a chance to be a really, really good football team,” Kill says. “We’re very athletic on both sides of the ball.”
The Gophers were picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten West last year but wound up pushing Wisconsin to a final-week showdown for the division title. The Gophers landed their first New Year’s Day bowl appearance since 1962, and more than 20,000 of their fans turned out to watch them play Missouri in the Citrus Bowl.
The fans want more. The Gophers haven’t defeated Wisconsin since 2003 and haven’t won a bowl game since 2004. If Kill can get those things done, his popularity will continue to soar.