College Football 2011: Big Ten Legends Division Preview, Golden Gophers

Robby DonohoContributor IIJune 1, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS - SEPTEMBER 18:  Da'Jon McKnight #6 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers carries the ball into the endzone for a touchdown after catching a pass during the game against the USC Trojans on September 18, 2010 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Part 4 of previewing the 2011 Big Ten keeps us in the Legends Division and resides with a team that begins in a new era in 2011.

Minnesota knew last year was going to be a rough season, but I doubt anyone anticipated it being THAT bad. Enter new coach Jerry Kill, who will look to revive a once proud football program that has been down over the course of the past couple years.

The former Northern Illinois head man is now taking over his first major college football program without having won a bowl game in his 10 years coaching Division I football. Expectations will begin low, but he'll need to make progress quickly.

Looking Back - 2010

When revisiting the 2010 season, the Gophers started off strong and then faded quickly. But there were a lot of positives to take away from a season that doesn't look good on paper.

For one, Minnesota was competitive in 10 of their 12 games that they played. Losing to USC and Northern Illinois by 11 (now you understand why the Gophers went after Kill) losing to Northwestern by one, falling to Purdue and Penn State by a total of 23 and then beating Illinois and Iowa to end the season shows the Gophers honestly weren't all that bad.

While the results show better things, the statistics do not. Through every major statistical category kept by the NCAA, the best area Minnesota ranked in the country was 33rd, and that was good for just fourth best in the conference.

Minnesota was dead last in the Big Ten in rushing defense, net punting and sacks while also being second to last in rushing offense, total offense, scoring offense and pass efficiency defense. Need I say more? The Gophers stunk last year.

Like I mentioned earlier, there's reason for optimism coming from Minneapolis with the two victories to end the 2010 season against bowl-bound teams Illinois and Iowa. The Gophers will use that momentum to go into a new era and a new head coach for 2011.

2011 - What Lies Ahead

Returning Starters: Seven offense, eight defense, two specialists

The most intriguing position of importance going into 2011 will lie at the quarterback position, where dual-threat QB MarQueis Gray will finally get his shot at being a full-time starter. While that will be explained more in-depth when looking over the offense, 2011 will debut a new way of play in Minnesota.

Gopher teams of the past were known for their power rushing attack, a deadly air attack and a hard-hitting physical defense. Jerry Kill will look to revitalize that in his first season coaching in the Big Ten.

Kill is the type of coach that has a solid history of turning around programs, especially Southern and Northern Illinois, but he's also a type of coach that compares a little to Kirk Ferentz in doing the most with the least.

By the time Kill left DeKalb, Illinois, no one wanted anything to do with NIU in the non-conference slate. The Huskies were a type of team that wouldn't bow out easy in a showdown with big-time teams. He'll give his Golden Gophers that same mindset when going into a season that features the opener being in Los Angeles against USC.

There's a lengthy list of lost starters from last year, most notably 35-year-old 12th year senior Adam Weber, who seemed to be the starting QB for Minnesota for the last two decades. Although he was an experienced starter, Weber was prone to numerous mistakes. It could be addition by subtraction for the Gophers under center, and Gray will take that opportunity with plenty of weapons around him.

2011 - Offensive Outlook

This upcoming season's offense will feature as written previously the flashy and flamboyant junior MarQueis Gray. When former coach Tim Brewster landed the Ben Davis star back in 2009, he was expected to come in immediately and be a factor on the offensive side of the ball.

While that wasn't the case immediately, Gray has made an impact as a receiver and specialist returning punts and kicks. 2011 will be his chance to take over at QB, a place where Minnesota is in desperate need of a play maker.

If Gray doesn't pan out, red shirt freshman Tom Parish or 6'5", 280 lb. behemoth Moses Alipate will be the next in line to take over the passing duties, but that isn't the mindset for the offense going into 2011.

Next year will be all about speed and quickness out on the edge to defeat defenses, and Minnesota wants to play to their strengths on the offensive end.

The running game will be the most experienced and talented position on the offense for 2011, with two proven tailbacks returning for their senior seasons.

Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge will make for a formidable duo in the backfield and will force defenses to crowd the box in stopping two backs that have an impressive blend of power and speed.

Bennett was the starter to begin 2010, but never appeared to be completely over his '08 knee injury. That paved the way for back-up DeLeon Eskridge, who led the team with almost 700 yards rushing and seven TD's. Those numbers will be expected to increase for the new year. There's also talk of redshirt freshman Donnell Kirkwood getting a chance to crack the starting rotation at running back, being a guy that can be a dangerous down field runner and power back in between the tackles.

The receivers return quite a bit of experience as well, but will also need young guys to step up as Gray makes the move to QB. The main target for 2011 will be senior Da'Jon McKnight, who led the team with 48 receptions for 758 yards and 10 TD's last year. He's a guy that can stretch the field with his speed but also be precise in his route running.

Behind him is little experience but tons of hope. Junior Brandon Green returns after missing just abotu all of last year with a knee injury. JUCO transfer Ge'Shaun Harris will get a look at starting as well, with small and speedy freshman Marcus Jones being a home run threat at the slot. They'll throw the former corner prospect around just about anywhere on offense, so defenses will need to recognize his abilities quickly.

It's also worthy of mentioning return specialist corner Troy Stoudermire, who can make a huge impact in returning kicks and jumping in for a few plays here and there in the receiving corps.

Along with the receivers, tight end Eric Lair is another dangerous threat that will be counted upon once again to be a guy that can go over the middle and make big catches. Many have compared him to being more of a receiver than a tight end, but he's a guy that can stretch defenses from a spot that most opponents won't expect to get beat deep from.

The offensive line had all five starters back from last year, but this year will have to replace three starters from a year ago on a unit that underachieved when paving the way for the rushing attack.

The left side is back with sophomore left tackle Ed Olson and senior guard Chris Bunders. Olson is an extremely promising prospect at the blind-side tackle position, while Bunders is your typical reliable O-Lineman that gets the job done on a game by game basis.

The biggest area of worry will be the center position, where senior Ryan Wynn will be called upon immediately to fill the big shoes of veteran D.J. Burris. Wynn has a history of injuries, which could give freshman Zac Epping the next in line to start.

On the right side, you'll more than likely see a duo of senior Ryan Orton and standout freshman Jimmy Gjere holding down the guard and tackle positions respectively. Gjere was the other guy preferred to blue chipper Seantrel Henderson, but could have more upside than Henderson with his big frame and excellent footwork.

There's tons of speed and quickness on offense, but the lack of veteran leadership and reserves could make the offense a make or break unit for 2011. The O-line will have to make a lot of progress going forward, but could be a solid unit this upcoming season.

2011 - Defensive Outlook

Defense was a bit of a sore spot last season, as Minnesota ranked not third to last, not second to last, but DEAD LAST in sacks in 2010. Throw in the worst rushing defense in the conference, and those two statistics will absolutely have to improve if Minnesota wants to attempt at trying to stop opposing offenses next season.

The horrific D-line does bring back promising prospects at all four positions, but will need a huge bump up in production to be a threat next year.

Junior D.J. Wilhite will be called upon immediately to increase production after an abysmal 2010 season, which saw him start eight games and record just 14 tackles and one sack. He's a guy that will showcase his speed, but he'll need to really step it up to show it. Sophomore Matt Garin backs up the junior and could get a shot at taking a couple cracks at the QB.

The other end will be held down by sophomore Kendall Gregory-McGhee, or as I'll refer to him here, KGM (would have been great if he had a B last name instead of an M). KGM is another blend of size and speed that shoots off the snap quickly, but will need to pressure the QB as well more often than Wilhite.

The interior of the D-Line should be a mix of Brandon Kirksey, Ra'Shede Hageman and Anthony Jacobs. Kirksey was fighting injuries most of the 2010 season, but he's a senior that will be counted upon to lead the patchwork unit, while Hageman is a rising sophomore that can make an impact immediately. Jacobs is an experienced lineman that is a versatile rusher that can be in the middle or the outside.

The linebacking corps will have to help the line move along in 2010, but should see a drastic improvement in 2011. Senior Gary Tinsley will be leader of the middle, but sophomore Brendan Beal is getting Gopher fans excited for what the defense could have going into next season.

Tinsley is the leading returning tackler from a year ago, but Beal is the much more talented and faster back that could get the nod in the middle. Beal was a star recruit for Florida, but suffered a torn ACL and got stuck down the bottom of a deep depth chart in Gainesville.

Along with Beal and Tinsley, the outsides have returning experience in juniors Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Rallis was originally a walk-on but has earned his stripes as a scholarship player for Jerry Kill in 2011 and gives Minnesota a linebacker that also specializes in covering receivers as a former safety. Spencer Reeves is also another guy that can make things happen thanks to his speed.

Keanon Cooper was a dependable tackler in 2010, but is a little undersized for the position at just 6'0", 217 lbs. Sophomore Aaron Hill is bit bigger than the junior, which could make this position a rotation of two linebackers.

The secondary wasn't any better in defending the pass, finishing 113th in the country in pass efficiency defense. You may be inquiring that hey, this team ranked 33rd in the country in pass defense, right? That's true, but that's thanks to opposing offenses running all over the Gophers last year. That means the pass efficiency D is a more telling statistic.

While there's reason to be scared that 2010 could roll into 2011 for the secondary, the corners and safeties do have a solid amount of experience back.

Previously mentioned human joystick Troy Stoudermire is expected to battle Michael Carter for one corner position, while sophomore Brock Vereen and junior Kyle Henderson will vie for the other corner spot.

Kill has to be elated to have senior Kim Royston returning for his final year, after a 2010 season that was decimated by injury. The year off has given the former Wisconsin Badger a chance to recover and develop into the defense's leader trolling the deep part of the field.

The other safety spot should be sophomore James Manuel's to lose. The hit stick safety started the first three games of 2010, but eventually spent time as a key backup. He'll be backed up by sophomore Kenny Watkins and senior Christyn Lewis. There's plenty of depth at the safety positions, which should make the Gophers adept at stopping the deep ball.

The return of Royston will be huge for this defense and could make for a solid unit stopping opposing offenses. The secondary should be much improve, while the pass rush and stopping the run will be a point of emphasis going into next season.

Reason To Be Excited: A Clean Sheet

2010 was a year to be forgotten for Minnesota, achieving one of their worst years on record. The Golden Gophers have been a proud football squad for decades and now have the chance to start over and get back to the Minnesota of old.

There's lots of speed on offense and a new identity on defense. Those two should make this a Minnesota team that will be fun to watch, and the fans need to get behind the Gophers. TCF Bank Stadium was a joke last year as a 12th man and has to step it up to give their beloved Gophers that home field advantage they deserve.

Reason To Worry: Quarterback Questions

You could have a multitude of things put on the reasons to worry line, but the one spot that concerns me the most is the QB position.

While the pass rush and a new coach would concern most people, it's the guy under center that has me worried. While MarQueis Gray is a talented player, there's little experience as a starter in the Big Ten, and there's little to no experience behind him.

If Gray fails, then what's next? The rushing attack will need to be supplemented by a formidable passing attack to be effective, which makes QB the most important position going into 2011.

2011 Overall Outlook

Best-Case Scenario: Gray flourishes as a QB, and in Jerry Kill's first season, the front four gets its act together in attacking opposing QB's. The defense improves immensely after a disappointing 2010, while Bennett and Eskridge get back to their dominant duo status in leading Minnesota back to the postseason. Record: (6-6)

Worst-Case Scenario: The QB position becomes a disaster, while the O-Line has problems opening up holes on the rushing attack. The defense reverts to its old self and has problems stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, and Jerry Kill has problems implementing his new system in his first year at the helm. Record: (3-9)

The schedule this year does miss Ohio State and Penn State, but the home schedule is extremely daunting, with Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois all visiting Minneapolis. Starting the season at USC isn't a good way to begin a new coach's tenure, and the game against Miami University won't be an easy one.

Road trips to Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern makes Minnesota miss having IU on the schedule this season. The Gophers will need to get out of their conference season with three victories to carry over the confidence into possibly playing their way into a bowl game for 2011.

It's a daunting slate ahead of Jerry Kill and the Gophers, but there's plenty of reason to be excited about a new era beginning for Minnesota.


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