Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Minnesota Golden Gophers, Part 2, Offense
Last week, I got my feet wet with Minnesota, looking at the program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Gophers will do this season.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 Minnesota offense.
2011 scoring offense: 18.4 PPG (12th in the conference), total offense: 310.3 YPG (12th), rushing YPC: 4.09 (seventh), passing efficiency: 108.97 (11th)
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 10.2
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: ninth (2007 and 2008)
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 11th/12th (2009 and 2011)
Returning starters: QB Marqueis Gray, WR Brandon Green, TE/FB John Rabe, OT Ed Olson, OL Jimmy Gjere, OL Zac Epping, OL Caleb Bak
Open positions: RB, WR, TE, OL
Offensive formation: Spread
Offensive philosophy: Big play
Passing scheme: Run and shoot
Rushing scheme: Zone read
Minnesota is a run-first offense. Its primary weapon is the read option out of the spread, but it does use pro sets, as well. Head coach Jerry Kill's priority is to establish the run, and he looks to do that both through the running back and a dual-threat quarterback.
In 2010, his Northern Illinois Huskies rushed on 63.8 percent of their 910 offensive plays. In 2009, they rushed on 65.9 percent of their plays. Last season, his Gophers rushed on 63.2 percent of their plays despite usually playing from behind.
By establishing the run, he wants to draw the safeties into the box, at which point he looks to pass for big yardage.
Kill's offense puts the onus of the offense on the signal caller, and for that reason, Marqueis Gray, along with Michigan's Denard Robinson, might be the most important individual players in the Big Ten in 2012.
Marqueis Gray is the same as he was when he came to Minnesota in 2008 as the third-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country (ahead of Robert Griffin III and Logan Thomas)—240 pounds of unlimited potential.
After spending one year as a backup quarterback and one year as a full-time wide receiver, Gray became the starting signal-caller last year. The results were less than stellar.
Gray finished with 1,495 yards passing, a 50.7 completion percentage, eight touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 114.54 passer efficiency rating. He also had 966 yards rushing for 4.85 YPC and six touchdowns, which did make him the second-most efficient rushing quarterback in a conference full of rushing quarterbacks.
The question is, did he improve?
In the first five games—he missed one game because of injury—he had a passer efficiency rating of 101.44. He also rushed for 371 yards and one touchdown.
In the final six games, he had an efficiency rating of 122.91 and rushed for 595 yards and five touchdowns.
If those numbers are indicative of improvements Gray has made, and if Gray can continue to move forward, Minnesota can have a productive offense in 2012.
True sophomore Max Shortell is behind Gray, but Shortell is, in many ways, irrelevant. The Minnesota offense would be dead in the water if Gray gets injured. The Minnesota offense would be much the same as last season—111th-ranked scoring offense in the country—if Gray fails to improve.
Before last season, I predicted if Gray could "complete 56 to 58 percent of his passes and avoid interceptions, his legs and his receivers should be able to do plenty of damage," and thus, the Minnesota O would have done enough to win football games.
Needless to say, Gray didn't do that, but that prediction still holds true for 2012. Of course, this season, he doesn't have Duane Bennett or Da'Jon McKnight to help him.
Last season, the Gophers' top two running backs averaged 3.79 YPC. Sophomore Donnell Kirkwood was the lesser of those two running backs, averaging 3.63 YPC on 63 carries.
This season, with the graduation of Duane Bennett, Kirkwood will likely take over the top running back spot.
As with last year, his success or failure depends on Gopher quarterback and top rushing threat Marqueis Gray.
Kirkwood and his backups can be successful if Gray can keep opposing defenses honest with both his rushing and passing.
If not, expect the Gopher rushing attack to stall.
As for those backups, the key player to look for will be JUCO-transfer James Gillum. Also, sophomores David Cobb and Devon White, along with true freshman Rodrick Williams, will push for playing time.
Returning Minnesota pass catchers had 53 receptions and 733 yards to their credit in 2011. That is exactly two receptions more and 27 yards less than departed top Gopher pass catcher Da'Jon McKnight had by himself last year.
The returning experience is split somewhat evenly among senior Brandon Green, junior Malcolm Moulton and sophomores Marcus Jones and Devin Crawford-Tufts. Junior A.J. Barker and JUCO-transfer Isaac Fruechte will also be in the mix.
Also, junior John Rabe, sophomore Drew Goodger, converted defensive end Kendall Gregory-McGhee and converted junior quarterback Moses Alipate will press for time at tight end—a position that Kill uses as more of an H-back than a traditional tight end.
Kill likes to use a lot of receivers and spread out the field, thereby giving his dual-threat quarterback a number of options for both his arm and his feet.
The problem is if none of the receivers are a threat, teams would focus on said dual-threat quarterback.
It is difficult to say how much of the problem last season lay at the inaccurate quarterback's feet and how much of it lay at the pass catchers' feet.
Either way, with their best receiver gone—a receiver who was good enough to make all-conference had somebody been able to put the ball in his hands—the remaining Gopher pass catchers have to step up.
If the spring game is any indication, they still have a long way to go.
All things considered, the Gopher line didn't play poorly last season. It allowed 21 sacks—tied for fourth in the conference—and paved the way for a respectable 4.09 YPC, which was No. 7.
On the other hand, it had the fewest rushing touchdowns in the conference and had trouble converting third-down short-yardage situations.
This season, the line will be without two major contributors—two-year starting center Ryan Wynn and three-year starting guard/tackle Chris Bunders—both of whom have exhausted their eligibility.
In effect, a number of younger, inexperienced players will have to step up.
Among those younger players are a number of underclassmen that gained experience early in their careers. Junior and two-year starting left tackle Ed Olson is the most notable. At 6'7", 302 pounds, he is built for the position, but he was relegated to back-up for the Gophers' final two regular-season games in 2011.
Sophomore Marek Lenkiewicz replaced Olson. He makes up a quintet of sophomores who received substantial playing time last year. Along with Lenkiewicz, Jimmy Gjere, Zac Epping, Caleb Bak and Tommy Olson (Ed's brother) earned starts.
Gjere missed the end of 2011 with concussion symptoms and sat out spring ball. Redshirt freshman Josh Campion, who missed last year with an injury, filled in for him at right tackle.
2013 projects to be a good season for the Gopher line, as at least six experienced players will in all probability return.
However, in 2012, there will be more growing pains.
The Minnesota offense will sink or swim based on the passing of its senior quarterback.
If Gray has made substantial improvements, Minnesota will pull itself off the bottom of the conference. On the other hand, the Gophers will remain right where they are if Gray has failed to make strides.
As previously mentioned, last season, Gray had more experienced and arguably more talented skill position players at his disposal. This season, Minnesota is without a receiver as skilled as Da'Jon McKnight and without a running back as experienced as Duane Bennett.
Furthermore, in 2011, the Gopher offensive line had to replace three starters. This season, it returns six players with starting experience, but no seniors and no individual players with the experience of Chris Bunders and Ryan Wynn.
Gray's improvement last season was not an anomaly; however, he still wasn't where he needed to be at the end of 2011 or in the 3-0 spring game, in which his receivers didn't help him and he completed a status quo 4-for-8 passes.
Look for tangible but limited growth from the offense, as Gray's growth will be held back by a lack of supporting play-makers.
Coming next Monday, an overview and breakdown of Minnesota's defense.
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