COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25
Big Ten Legends PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Jerry Kill, 9-16 (1 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Limegrover | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tracy Claeys
In the boldest stroke of his two-year tenure, Gophers coach Jerry Kill tore up freshman quarterback Philip Nelson’s redshirt at midseason and put the teenage phenom at the controls of his offense.
“I wouldn’t do it if I thought he wasn’t ready or wasn’t capable,” Kill said of Nelson’s battlefield promotion. “We felt he gives us our best chance.”
Maybe he did, though Nelson endured plenty of freshman moments before bouncing back with a two-touchdown performance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. But if activating the quarterback early was risky, this year all that mileage should be beneficial.
Only one problem: Who’s he going to throw to?
The offensive line is deep and feisty, and Donnell Kirkwood (926 yards) and Rodrick Williams (261) give the Gophers two solid if unspectacular tailbacks. But no returning Gopher receiver caught 20 passes last year, and the wideouts as a unit have four touchdowns among them. Nelson may be a passing savant and an elusive scrambler, as the Gophers believe, but he needs to find a go-to target right away.
By moving Derrick Wells from cornerback to safety, the Gophers turned an overmatched defense into a competitive one. This year’s plan: Take another step forward — by moving Wells from safety back to corner.
Having a ball-hawking secondary helped the Gophers reduce their points-allowed by a touchdown per game, cut the number of passing touchdowns by more than a third, and triple the number of interceptions.
Still, the Gophers were battered by the run in Big Ten play, giving up an average of 197.1 rushing yards in league games. Their secondary, with Brock Vereen and Cedric Thompson supplementing Wells’ coverage, should again be a strength, but they’ll need lots more help up front.
Senior tackle Ra’Shede Hageman will draw double teams, so the defensive line, better at pass-rushing than run-stopping, will be tested. And with two starting linebackers to replace, it’s hard to predict how much help is available. The Gophers are counting on junior college transfer Damien Wilson to step into the middle right away.
Aussie punter Christian Eldred averaged only 38.1 yards, and the Gophers finished last in the Big Ten in punting. Still, Kill insists he’s pleased with the job Eldred did, especially since the Gophers didn’t have a punt blocked. Kicker Chris Hawthorne finally inherits the field goal duty he transferred from NC State to handle.
They haven’t won a Big Ten title in 46 years, haven’t been to the Rose Bowl in more than half a century. Yet Minnesota’s long-suffering fans fervently believe that history is finally on their side. Not their own history. Their coach’s.
Jerry Kill’s records during his first three seasons at Southern Illinois were 1–10, 4–8 and 10–2, the latter commencing a streak of seven straight I-AA playoff appearances. Kill’s records during his three seasons at Northern Illinois were 6–7, 7–6 and 10–3, and he left behind the nucleus of a team that reached the Orange Bowl last January.
Kill has the Gophers on a similar trajectory so far, going 3–9 and 6–7 his first two seasons. The Gophers were noticeably improved last year, particularly on defense, and though they remain overmatched against the Big Ten’s elite, they still managed to qualify for a minor bowl game. So after two seasons of what he describes as “baby steps,” can Kill take a giant leap forward once again?
“You’ve got to have high expectations,” says Tracy Claeys, Kill’s defensive coordinator at every stop.