COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2011 PRESEASON TOP 25
Big Ten Legends PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Jerry Kill, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Limegrover | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tracy Claeys
Coach Jerry Kill figured it would take MarQueis Gray a year to learn how to be a quarterback after two seasons at receiver, and it did. Now that he appears ready to blossom in the job, however, he could use some help. “We’ve got a quarterback,” Kill says. “We’ve got to get everybody else to step it up around him.”
With this roster, that means asking teenagers to become playmakers. Only one receiver, senior Brandon Green, has ever caught a touchdown pass, and only one tailback, oft-injured sophomore Donnell Kirkwood, has ever rushed for a score.
The Gophers signed junior college tailback James Gillum to help carry the ball, and they are counting on speedy sophomore receivers Marcus Jones and Devin Crawford-Tufts to get open. The offensive line is young, too, with no seniors and only two juniors.
All of which leaves Gray, by far Minnesota’s best athlete, to power the offense. The 245-pound senior’s running ability is the Gophers’ best weapon — he gained 966 yards just by scrambling — and if he can come close to his stated goal of a 60 percent completion rate (after barely clearing 50 percent last year), points should be more plentiful.
The Gophers tried Ra’Shede Hageman at tight end and defensive end. But the athletic 300-pounder found his niche at defensive tackle in 2011, and has Minnesota’s coaches quietly optimistic he will emerge as a star. “When he’s at his best, he can’t be blocked,” Kill says. “Those guys are hard to find.”
So are reliable tacklers, as the Gophers have discovered. To compensate, and to create more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Kill is emphasizing speed more than ever. Outside linebacker Mike Rallis has moved to the middle, and junior safety James Manuel has moved to linebacker. A pair of young cornerbacks, junior Brock Vereen and sophomore Derrick Wells, have been converted into safeties, all in the name of quickness.
The NCAA granted senior corner Troy Stoudermire an extra season after breaking his arm last September, a bonus for such a young group.
“We’re trying to eliminate that step-slow problem,” says defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
Stoudermire is the Big Ten’s career kickoff-return leader, so Gopher coaches are apprehensive about new rules discouraging returns. But they’re more worried about their punting, since Dan Orseske has ranked 11th in the conference for two straight years. Walk-on Peter Mortell will challenge Orseske this year.
The enduring image of Kill’s first season at Minnesota is of him rolling on the ground during a game, in the throes of an epileptic seizure. It was a frightening episode, but Kill is tough and adaptable. “We’ve put that in the past,” Kill says. “I’m doing what I have to do to get healthy.”
Not a bad way to describe his program. The Gophers aren’t healthy yet, not even close. Kill spent his first season installing his system and changing the culture, but boosting the talent level takes far longer. The Gophers have barely a dozen scholarship seniors, and virtually no meaningful experience at playmaking positions.
This is a team built for 2015, so the benchmarks this fall are modest: Win their “guarantee” games for a change, shock an occasional Big Ten opponent and perhaps sneak into a bowl game.