The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 52 Minnesota.
Previewing Minnesota’s Offense for 2014:
Three weeks after Minnesota’s loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl, the Gophers’ most experienced quarterback, Philip Nelson, announced he was transferring. He said he was seeking a more pass-oriented offense and quickly landed at Rutgers before his dismissal from the team this summer. Nelson’s departure leaves Mitch Leidner in charge of Minnesota’s offense. Leidner battled Nelson for playing time last season, starting four games and completing 55.1 percent of his passes.
Beyond Nelson, most of the offense returns, including 1,200-yard rusher David Cobb. With the offensive line returning almost fully intact, the Gophers will rely heavily on their running game again, especially with redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards flashing loads of promise during spring practice.
Tight ends have become a major part of Minnesota’s passing game, especially Maxx Williams, but wide receiver is still the team’s biggest concern. Derrick Engel, who led the team in receiving last year before tearing his ACL, has graduated. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones both had productive freshman seasons, and junior KJ Maye is back from a sports hernia injury. But the Gophers probably need some of their incoming freshmen to emerge.
Previewing Minnesota’s Defense for 2014:
A defense that ranked 25th in the nation in points allowed (22.2 ppg) needs to replace two All-Big Ten selections — defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen. The defensive line still has Theiren Cockran, who led the team with 7.5 sacks last year, but depth looked like an issue for that unit this spring.
The linebacker corps took a hit this spring when Cody Poock suffered a torn ACL. Poock, who looked ready to start at outside linebacker, didn’t rule out a return this fall, but the Gophers wasted little time moving Jack Lynn into the strong-side role. Lynn was stuck at middle linebacker, behind Damien Wilson, who made 78 tackles as a junior. The Gophers believe weak-side linebacker De’Vondre Campbell will be an eventual star, and as much as they’ll miss Vereen’s leadership, they still believe the secondary is the strength of the defense.
Previewing Minnesota’s Specialists for 2014:
Junior punter Peter Mortell averaged 43.3 yards per punt last season — the third-best mark in Gophers history. Redshirt freshman Ryan Santoso, an Under Armour All-American in 2012, is the leading candidate to take over at kicker for departing senior Chris Hawthorne. Marcus Jones is back after scoring touchdowns on a punt return and kick return within the first two weeks last year.
Coming off its best season since 2003, Minnesota has the talent to improve again this year, if the Gophers can survive a more difficult schedule. Coach Jerry Kill’s teams have gone 3–9, 6–7 and 8–5 in his first three seasons. He sees parallels to the way his programs progressed at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. “We built it on defense, and now you’ve got to bring the offense (along),” he says. “That’s what we’ve done everywhere we’ve been.”
Kill, who turns 53 in August, faced more questions about his health last season after an in-game seizure against Western Illinois and another that kept him from traveling to Michigan.
He was the lowest-paid coach in the Big Ten last year, at $1.1 million, but the university more than doubled his salary with a new deal that will pay him an average of $2.3 million through 2018.
“I think it shows our commitment to football,” Gophers AD Norwood Teague says. “It shows our commitment to Jerry, and it’s the right thing to do at this time.”
Now, Kill will seek to justify his big payday, as the Gophers move into the Big Ten West. They have a non-conference matchup against TCU and two tough draws from the Big Ten East — Michigan and Ohio State.