This week we stop by The Daily Gopher, SBN's Minnesota blogging outpost, for a chat with two of the site's writers, Jeff and Tom, about the plight of the Gophers these past few years and what the future holds.
Minnesota started the 2011 season so badly that halfway through most of the college football world was ready to proclaim this the worst major conference team of all time. I watched when Minnesota played Michigan, and I caught part of both the Nebraska and Purdue games. I didn't imagine that team would score twice the rest of the season, much less win twice down the stretch. What changed over the last month of the season?
Jeff - I'd say it changed after halftime of the Nebraska game, except that the Huskers were using the second half as a live scrimmage. I mean, Taylor Martinez was actually attempting passes -- and not the Nebraska shovel pass or lateral, an actual, really, really ugly over-hand sling-shot type thing past the line of scrimmage that only Martinez can throw. Wait, how'd this turn into a Taylor Martinez bashing-fest? But yeah, after that Nebraska game it's like all the things Coach Kill and staff had been telling them finally started to click. I can't say why it finally started clicking because when you're essentially un-coached by Brewster and his band of revolving door coordinators, it's probably a shock to the system when you're suddenly faced with coaches who not only know what they're doing, but expect you to do it. Apparently it took the Minnesota players about 7 games into the season for it to start sinking in.
Tom - I think the season turned when everything started to click for many of the regulars, most notably MarQueis Gray. I believe that Coach Kill and his staff had been spending months trying to teach these athletes how to be football players on top of learning a new playbook and schemes. Midway through the season the playbook was reduced, guys started to see what they were supposed to be doing and they could finally play football without thinking. Once they started to figure out where they needed to be and once they started to see how good things can happen when you are in the right place, then it all started to come together. Not only did it lead to a couple of wins but we also played Michigan State to within a touchdown, a game we were very much in. This team was markedly better the last five games of the year.
The rushing offense seemed to work fairly well with MarQueis Gray and Duane Bennett doing most of the work, but it was a similar situation to Michigan in 2010 when Denard Robinson was tasked with the lion's share of the rushing load. With Bennett gone do you think Minnesota will have to rely even more on Gray to move the chains on the ground? What running backs are you looking at to step up and fill the void?
Jeff - Since Mason left the running game has been a disaster. Last season was the first since 2007 where the team averaged at least 4 yards per carry, and most of that was thanks to Gray, as Bennett only averaged 3.8. I don't know how you guys feel about Shoelace carrying the ball a lot (Ed note: Um, terrible. I wince with every hit), but I get really nervous about Q being the team's only real running threat because it's only a matter of time before he gets hurt. Sure, at 6'4 and 240 he's bigger than most B1G linebackers, but he not only runs hard every time, but the coaching staff seems intent on running him right up the middle into the teeth of the defense. Coach Kill wants a run-oriented offense to set up the pass, and for that to happen we need a running back or 3 to step up. We're crossing our fingers and our toes and our...nevermind, we're just really hoping JUCO-transfer James Gillum is the guy, and so far so good. He looked solid in the spring, and hopefully he continues to improve into the fall. David Cobb, Donell Kirkwood and Devon Wright all have potential, but also a lot of question marks.
Tom - I expect Gray will run the ball less this year and the bulk of the running back carries will go to James Gillum. He is a JUCO early enrollee who participated in spring practice. He seems to have the more complete skill set with some speed and elusiveness. But I am sure we will see a lot of Donnell Kirkwood who likes to run guys over. I expect that rushing will improve over last year but I don't know if any one guy will be taking the Big Ten by storm. Improvement will come from a few guys and it will come because of increased commitment to balance out the offense by getting the ball out of Gray's hands every once in a while.
Speaking of Gray, while he struggled in the early season passing the ball, it seemed like he got into something of a rhythm toward the end of the year including very promising outings against Michigan State and Iowa. Do you think Gray's year spent at receiver in 2010 hurt his early season production, or is it more a matter of him just needing starting experience to get comfortable like any other quarterback? I have heard some practice reports that are high on his potential to improve this season, and coupled with his physical skillset he seems like a prime candidate to have a breakout year. What are your expectations for Gray's senior year?
Jeff - Of all the things Brewster did wrong, #1 on the list was not redshirting Q his freshman season. He burned his shirt so that 3 or 4 times per game they could bring him in to run up the gut, and his sophomore year was spent entirely at receiver. So not only did Brew do his best to ruin him but he barely played the two seasons before coming to Minnesota, as he was hurt almost his entire senior year, then missed the next because he didn't qualify academically. The ability and athleticism that made him a 4 star prospect out of Indy and one of the top dual-threat recruits in 2008 is still there, he's just not going to have enough time to ever maximize his potential here. Had he been shirted and allowed 3 years under Kill I think he's all-conference in 2013. As it stands, 2012 will be his last season, and while I think he shows improvement, I don't predict a breakout season. It won't be for lack of effort, as Q has been a workaholic in the weight room and film room, and he looked much more confident throwing the ball this spring, but he still has a ways to go as a passer, and the talent around him is either young, inexperienced, or just not very good.
Tom - I do expect Gray to have a breakout year. The kid is just a physical freak who is capable of beating teams with his arm and his legs. I do not believe that playing wide receiver for a year really hurt his development, he wasn't able to take the starting job away from Adam Weber so getting him time on the field to at least get accustom to the speed of the game was probably a good thing. If any decision should be analyzed and ripped it should be the decision to play him as a true freshman. With a young offensive line and a young crew of receivers it would be awfully nice to have this year and next for Gray. Instead his freshman year was wasted as being a wildcat guy and attempting just 15 passes. Thank you Tim Brewster.
The Minnesota defense was much maligned in 2011, giving up 40+ points three times and a season high 58 to Michigan. The only teams held under 20 points were USC in the season opener and a rapidly unraveling Illinois team coached by a dead man (figuratively speaking). First, what in god's name happened to keep that USC game so close? Second, what kind of improvement do you expect from this defense in year two?
Jeff - I had forgotten about that Michigan bloodletting until you mentioned it, so thanks for bringing that up. *flips middle finger at screen* Things were so bad after that game I wrote this satirical post saying they were shutting down the program, and people were calling the Gopher athletic department asking if it was true. Seriously. So thanks again for that. *flips other middle finger at screen* Honestly, the USC game was probably the worst thing that happened to them all year, as the coaches admitted the players got overconfident and lost focus. They followed that up by losing 5 of their next 6, which included New Mexico-f***ing-State and 1-AA national champion North Dakota State. AT HOME! We realized pretty quickly that the defensive issues weren't just with coaching, as we had pinned everything on former DC Kevin Cosgrove (want to see a Nebraska fan get angry? Just say something like "was Cosgrove a good DC for the Huskers?" then duck. Quickly), but there wasn't a ton of talent there either. New DC Tracy Claeys has built a monster defense wherever he's been with Kill, so it was pretty jarring to see how crap-tastic they were last year. The front seven could be solid, but the secondary may hold them back as they lost leading tackler S Kim Royston to graduation and little-to-nothing ready to replace him. Other than CB Troy Stoudermire, who missed almost all of last season with a broken arm, the secondary lacks experience, and for the most part talent, but we'll see what happens. I would say they can't be as bad last year, but then again we said that last year and look what happened.
Tom - That USC game was weird and it gave the fan base false hope for the season. Essentially in that game Matt Barkely was able to throw to Robert Woods every single play in the first half. In the second we took that away and their offense stagnated a little. The defense was hurt when our best corner, Troy Stoudermire, went down with a broken arm. He is getting a 5th year of eligibility to pair with Brock Vereen to give us a couple of good starting corners with some depth behind them. A couple JUCO defensive backs are expected to make the secondary better and deeper. We have a good group of linebackers and I liked last year's young ends. Defensive tackle is potentially an issue but I think this defense will be faster and more fundamentally sound in year 2 of Jerry Kill. I'm not expecting a top 4 of 5 defense but it will be better than last year.
What do you think of Jerry Kill one year into his tenure as head coach? He wasn't a flashy hire, but I always believed he was the kind of no nonsense coach Minnesota needed after being severely Brewster'd. I know there are some that weren't happy with the hire, and it is by all accounts too early to tell how things will play out, but give me a general reading on your feelings for Kill and his standing with the casual (i.e. non-internet obsessive) fanbase.
Jeff - Your second sentence there sums things up pretty well. It took about 48 hours for the Gopher fans that were upset about the Kill hire to not be, as once you heard the man speak two things became very apparent very quickly- he was honest almost to a fault, and he knew what the hell he was talking about. Those were two things you could definitely not say about Brewster, and the fans fell in love with him almost immediately. Besides the lunatic fringe that every fan base has, Gopher fans are squarely behind Jerry Kill and his staff. When Kill says this could be a long, and sometimes painful, rebuild we believe him, but we trust he knows what he's doing since he's done it in his last 3 coaching stops.
Tom - I think everyone around here believes that Kill was the right hire and he has the tools to turn the program around. He is teaching guys how to play football and throughout last season we slowly saw improvement. It had to get worse before it was going to get better and I think that is what we saw losing to North Dakota St, 58-0 at Michigan and then giving up 40+ to Purdue and Nebraska. But then things started to click and we started to look like a football team again. I am fully confident that over the next couple years this team will get back to being competitive and at least mediocre. Taking the next step go from from a 6, 7 or 8 win team to competing for a shot in the Big Ten title game every once in a while is a big step to take and difficult.
One thing Jerry Kill took some flak for was a comment about Minnesota not having the kind of athletes he expected of a FBS program --- a clear dig at Brewster. With that being said, what have you thought so far about Kill's efforts on the recruiting trail, and have things differed substantially from what Tim Brewster was able to do recruiting?
Jeff - He took some flack for saying it, then they lost to New Mexico State and NDSU (did I mention that happened at home? I did? Just checking) and people realized he was right. This program was, and is, in serious need of a talent upgrade, but part of that comes from the ability to coach up the players. Nobody was "coached up" under Brewster because they heard a different thing every year from a new coordinator, and according to a guy I know that played for both Mason and Brewster, the players knew pretty quickly that Brew was in way over his head. We'll get to this more in your last question, but for Minnesota to succeed, they need to find more diamonds in the rough and develop them because they're just not going to have top 20 national recruiting classes every year. But right now we trust that Kill and his staff know what they're doing and what type of players they're looking for, so we're not as worried about recruiting rankings.
Look at the 2012 class: most experts picked them last in the B1G, yet the fan base is over the moon because he locked up 8 of the top 10 in state, and 4 of the top 5 (and the fifth one they had zero shot at, since he moved from Charlotte for his senior year and was basically already committed to Stanford before the season even started). Unless they're uber stars like Mauer, Seantrell Henderson or a Michael Floyd, I think kids in Minnesota often get overlooked because we usually don't have a ton of big-name schools coming to recruit them. Mankato QB Philip Nelson has a chance to be a real star and the #1 player in the state, WR Andre McDonald, is the kind of athlete we're dying for here. Not only that but Kill is committed to the offensive line, and got two beauty's: Jonah Persig was grabbed from the clutches of both Wisconsin and Iowa, and believe you me, that NEVER happens. Sconnie and those dirty little ****s from Iowa are used to waltzing in here and grabbing whomever they please, so we're hoping that Persig being recruited hard by both but choosing to stay home is a sign of things to come. Isaac Hayes (I'm talkin' 'bout Shaft!) was the top interior lineman in the state, and has a chance to start as a freshman at center either this fall or certainly next. Kill's recruiting classes might not be flashy but at least with the 2012 class, there's plenty to be excited about.
Tom - I think it is really early to know much about Kill's recruiting. The stark difference early is that Brewster was offering and pursuing a lot of 4-star type kids (which only rarely landed). MarQueis Gray was a huge get, Michael Carter is a 4-star steal from West Virginia, LaMichael James was Minnesota verbal before Oregon paid someone in Texas to steer him away. Jerry Kill is so far competing with Western Michigan for verbals. But if he is getting football players who fit his system and grow up to be legit Big Ten players then we'll all be happy. Time will tell.
How do you think next season plays out for Minnesota? The Big Ten schedule looks rough with trips to Lincoln, Iowa City, and Madison, and home games against both Michigan schools. Do you think Minnesota is in a position to exceed its two conference wins from a season ago? If so, do the Gophers take care of business in the non-conference schedule and earn a bowl birth in year two?
Jeff - The Gophers play in the toughest division in college football (I still refuse to use the division names), and considering Wisconsin is their cross-over rival, Minnesota is locked into one of the toughest conference schedules in the country every season. So be it. It's going to always make things tough, and especially in these first few years of rebuilding, and I'm tempering expectations because of it. They'll be favored in at least 3 of their 4 non-cons this year, but then again they were last year and went 1-3. So expect 2-3 wins out of conference, and stealing 2 or 3 Big Ten games (they get Northwestern and Purdue at home and they've owned Illinois the past two seasons. Such a shame the Zooker is gone. We'll miss him here in Minnesota) I think 6 wins is possible, but I'd say 4 or 5 wins is most likely.
Tom - The Big Ten schedule is always daunting, especially for a program like Minnesota's where your "winable" games are games the other program is looking forward to as a "winable" game as well. We get Northwestern and Purdue at home, both games that are not out of reach. We travel to Iowa and Illinois, two more games that we are capable of winning regardless of the venue. The remaining four are against programs that should be significantly better than Minnesota. Maybe you win one but Michigan St, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin are at another level right now. Personally I see 2 or 3 Big Ten wins. I think Northwestern and home and Illinois on the road will be wins. Then you find a W somewhere in the other six games.
More broadly, what do you think the expectation level is for Jerry Kill and the Gophers beyond year two? Minnesota isn't far removed from being in competition for Big Ten titles, but the last few years have set the program back a long ways while other middle-tier programs like Iowa and Michigan State have stepped to the front of the pack. To what level does Jerry Kill have to get this program to keep his job for the long haul?
Jeff - OK first of all let's set the record straight on Glen Mason: He was the most successful coach the program has had in the past 40 or so years, and in his 10 seasons the Gophers won at least six games seven times, and therefore made seven bowl games, or about as many as they've made from the early 70's to today. So yes, he had some success, but the Gophers had a .500 record or better in the Big Ten just four times, and they made zero New Year's Day bowls. Zero. Mason made a name for himself with an incredibly effective running game, and by picking up four cheap wins a season against a non-conference schedule that would make even an SEC school say "Come on Glen, that's pathetic". That was what you were getting with a Mason-coached team, and by the end of 2006, the fan base, and obviously the administration, felt like things had been going downhill since he got passed over for the "Ohio" job (as Brady Hoke would call it). He alienated the state's high school coaches and recruits (Larry Fitzgerald and James Lauranitis are two native Minnesotans never recruited by Mason. Both have said they would have considered the U had they just been asked, but Mason never did. I wish I were kidding), and didn't do a great job of hiding the fact that this was supposed to be a stepping-stone job to Ohio.
Considering where we are now this may seem crazy, but I will forever believe that firing Mason was absolutely the right decision. That's because the problem wasn't firing Mason, it was hiring Brewster to replace him, a move that moved this program backwards about a decade. Did you know the Gophers hired Brewster instead of former Florida DC and now Louisville HC Charlie Strong? True story. Had the Gophers hired a coach who had any idea what he was doing, who knows where the program is now. As it stands, six years later we're looking up at what we used to take for granted, but I believe Coach Kill is the right coach to get us back to "The Mason Level" and beyond. My personal opinion, and this is not shared by every Gopher fan, but I believe reasonable expectations for this program should be the same as down at Iowa; 7-8 wins are expected, with a New Year's Day bowl a strong goal and once in a blue moon maybe a run at a conference title. And yes I think this is possible at Minnesota. I compare the Gophers situation to the Tampa Bay Rays, where both teams need to be creative to find competitive advantages over much more wealthier opponents. The Rays knew they could never out-spend the Yankees and Red Sox, so they found other ways to compete. The Gophers will never be able to out-recruit Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska etc, so they're going to have to find other ways, and conveniently they have a coach who knows how to do that. Jerry Kill teams are always well coached, which means they're disciplined, they execute and they're not going to beat themselves. The more of his recruits he gets in here, the more we'll see of that, and the more kids that will be two or three star recruits that will turn into excellent B1G players.
You're probably laughing at the expectations, but I believe that if two rural Upper Midwest schools with sparse recruiting bases like Iowa and Wisconsin can succeed in the Big Ten, then Minnesota can too. And before you talk about success and prestige, remember Iowa football's dark ages from the 1960's-late 70's before Hayden Fry took over, and that Wisconsin football was gawd-awful until 1990 when Barry Alvarez was hired. Also remember that Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois have all been to the Rose Bowl in the past dozen years, so if it can happen there, it can happen here too.
Tom - I think people are just expecting improvement in year two. Is six wins possible? Yes, but I think an increase in wins and then avoiding games like the Michigan drubbing from a year ago would be acceptable. There are a lot of young kids who played last year and will be playing this year so there is hope for the short-term future. In the long-term I still think it is just about getting better. As I mentioned I think it is fairly easy to get your program to a mid-level program. But taking that next step to actually being competitive with anyone in the conference and having a shot at an occasional title is really difficult. Kill is a teacher and a program builder by doing it the right way. We will see how it plays out in the next few years but I am hopeful.
Thank you again to Jeff and Tom for taking the time to answer my questions, and I hope that every one of our Maize n Brew readers takes a second to check out The Daily Gopher for some truly phenomenal coverage of Minnesota sports.