I began this series by taking a broad overview of the Minnesota program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Gophers will do this season.
Two weeks ago, I looked at the 2012 Minnesota offense and how it projects.
Last week, I looked at the 2012 Minnesota defense and how it is shaping up.
This week, I'll look at the Golden Gophers' specialists, recruiting class and schedule, and I'll give a final breakdown and my prediction for Minnesota in 2012.
The Gophers return both of their field-goal kickers—senior Jordan Wettstein and junior Chris Hawthorne—who averaged a combined 80 percent on 15 kicks.
On the other hand, the pair ranked ninth in the conference on touchback percentage.
Meanwhile, sophomore punter Dan Orseske failed to build upon his lackluster freshman season. After averaging 36.72 YPP in 2010, he led—or failed to lead—Minnesota to the worst punt average in the conference and sixth-worst in the country with 37.04 YPP.
The Gophers had a respectable return game but never settled on one player. One of the key return men from last season—running back Duane Bennett—has exhausted his eligibility.
Returning players with experience include receivers Marcus Jones, Malcolm Moulton and Brandon Green, as well as ubiquitous cornerback Troy Stoudermire.
2012 Recruiting Class
As has been mentioned multiple times, Jerry Kill went the JUCO route, signing six JUCO transfers—two on offense and four on defense.
Overall, this class was heavy on defensive backs, signing seven players that will come in as defensive backs—three JUCOs—plus one athlete that could wind up in the secondary.
Among the freshmen, Lewisville, Texas's Scott Ekpe is a defensive lineman who enrolled in classes early in order to participate in spring practices. He drew praise from Jerry Kill, who said he "did a really nice job for a freshman. He didn't seem like the transition was a big deal to him." Look for Ekpe to work his way onto the depth chart in 2012.
Jonah Pirsig is an offensive lineman from Blue Earth, Minnesota that is already at playing size—6'9", 300 pounds, according to Rivals.com. The Gophers likely have their top five linemen, but Pirsig could play his way into a backup tackle role.
Finally, Waconia, Minnesota's Maxx Williams could push for time as a backup tight end. Williams is a bit undersized—6'4", 225 pounds—but Kill doesn't use his tight ends out of the traditional three-point stance.
A pound sign—#—indicates must-win for Minnesota.
An exclamation point—!—indicates a probable loss.
A dollar sign—$—indicates a swing game.
08/30: At UNLV Rebels #
09/08: New Hampshire Wildcats (FCS) #
09/15: Western Michigan Broncos #
09/22: Syracuse Orange $
09/29: At Iowa Hawkeyes $
10/13: Northwestern Wildcats $
10/20: At Wisconsin Badgers !
10/27: Purdue Boilermakers $
11/03: Michigan Wolverines !
11/10: At Illinois Fighting Illini !
11/17: At Nebraska Cornhuskers !
11/24: Michigan State Spartans !
In order for this to happen, Minnesota needs:
- MarQueis Gray to become an adequate passer and complete 56-58 percent of his throws.
- At least one, if not more than one offensive playmakers to emerge around Gray.
- An improved rush defense. The pass defense won't be especially good any which way, but if the rush defense improves, it will make it easier to defend against the pass.
In order for this to happen:
- Gray will remain the only threat on an otherwise stale offense. Even worse, his accuracy will continue to be an issue.
- The new defensive interior proves to be soft, while the JUCO explosion in the secondary just doesn't cut it.
- The Gophers experience growing pains earlier in the season during the easy part of their schedule. Then, in November, they are simply outmatched by better teams.
The Season Will Be a Success If...
Minnesota wins five games.
Most Gopher fans will measure success by a six-win, bowl-eligible season, but November will be brutal for the Gophers. In effect, they will have to get their wins early, which won't be easy for a team that is still in transition and is breaking in a lot of new faces on what was a porous defense.
The season will be successful if Minnesota can win its three "cupcakes" and take two of the swing games.
It would be particularly sweet for the Gophers if one of those swing games comes as the third win in a row against rival Iowa.
I went into breaking down Minnesota expecting the team to make substantial strides this season, as I think highly of Jerry Kill, and I feel that Gray can be the signal-caller Kill needs to carry his offense.
The problem is that there are so many missing pieces.
As previously mentioned, it's hard to get excited about the defense when it has to break in two new defensive tackles and a new secondary. It makes it doubly difficult to get excited about said defense when so many JUCO faces need to play significant roles.
The offense could carry the team and Gray and the line could get things going, but the Gophers don't have any pass-catchers or running backs that scream "game-changer"—at least, not without more experience and time in the system. That will make the sledding difficult for Gray.
Minnesota's schedule adds to the damage. November looks bleak for the Gophers, which means they will have to pick up their wins early. That is a problem for a young, growing team.
I have Minnesota going 5-7, with four out-of-conference wins and a conference win over Northwestern.
The good news is that by mid-November, when everything looks grim and a bowl bid becomes an impossibility, backup quarterback Max Shortell will get some meaningful snaps. This could mean a great deal, as 2013 looks to be a turnaround year for Jerry Kill's program.
Check out past installments of 2012 Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Northwestern Wildcats.