This week we sat down with Tom from SB Nation's resident Minnesota football blog, The Daily Gopher. We covered offense, defense, expectations of Jerry Kill, and how things are looking for 2013. Special thanks goes out to Tom for answering our questions!
Year two under Jerry Kill took a nice step forward as Minnesota was able to get the six wins needed for bowl eligibility. Still, of Minnesota's six conference losses, only one was by less than 10 points. Was the rush of six wins enough to distract from Minnesota's struggles against upper and middle tier Big Ten teams?
I don't think anybody was expecting to really be competitive against the upper tier of the Big Ten, so a distraction wasn't really necessary. The fanbase realizes that this is a process and people appreciate that Kill is building this program by first building a firm foundation. The bowl game was nice, how well they played in the bowl game was a pleasant surprise.
From a homer perspective, the game against Iowa is fairly misleading. The Gophers were awful for about an 8 minute stretch where Iowa put up a quick 21 points. The other 52 minutes were won by the Gophers. But this team wasn't talented enough to overcome a few key mental mistakes. The Northwestern loss is similar. We fumbled the opening kick-off; Northwestern touchdown. Minnesota punts. Venric Marc with a long TD run and we were in a quick 14 point hole. This team was usually good enough to compete but not good enough to overcome mistakes on talent alone.
And to be honest 2012 was an improvement over 2011 when you look at "being competitive" against the upper-tier teams. Sure, Michigan beat us by 22 and for 3 quarters it wasn't even a game. But it was 58-0 in 2011. Our Nebraska spread "improved" from 37 to 24. This is nothing to hang a banner over, but last year was clearly a year of baby-steps in the right direction. Historically year three of a Jerry Kill rebuilding project sees a significant jump in results. Considering we are so young (and this ain't the MAC), 2014 might be the year we see a big step forward but we are looking forward to another baby-step in 2013.
The offense struggled a year ago as the quarterback position wasn't settled until late. Since I imagine Philip Nelson is the guy going forward, do you expect a big improvement from the offense in 2013?
Yes I expect a significantly more productive offense, for more reasons than just the quarterback position. Basically everyone returns. The entire offensive line was very young last year and they return all 5 starters (with just on senior in 2013). Most of the receivers return, all of the running backs and obviously the quarterback. The question really should be how much improvement is expected?
My expectations are simple. I want to see an increased completion % and I want to see a better 3rd down conversion rate. Philip Nelson completed under 50% of his passes and not being able to hit a couple of WIDE OPEN receivers cost them the bowl game. Part of this will be on his receivers to do a better job of getting separation and getting open, but he has to hit them if he wants to move the chains. And then converting more than 36% of our 3rd downs is really important. This offense will not be explosive, they will have to be one that moves the chains and scores efficiently. Completing passes and converting 3rd downs are vital and two areas where there is plenty of room for improvement.
In terms of overall numbers the defense took a step forward in 2012. How much better do you think the defense can play in 2013?
The defense will be interesting because some position groups should be better but others lost a few key starters. The defensive line should be better and it will be led by the team's best player, Ra'Shede Hageman. Safety also should be a unit of relative strength. There were essentially three starting caliber kids back there in 2012 and all three returns from what was a reliable unit. The areas of concern are corner and linebacker where we lose a total of four starters. Corner might be OK as the staff is moving one of the safeties over and then a number of returning underclassmen should be adequate. Linebacker is going to look pretty new but this unit was unimpressive in 2012. All of that to say that the defense will likely be OK and finish about there they did year ago in terms of Big Ten statistical rankings. Improvement is going to come from being in the same system, with the same coaches for a third consecutive year. Continuity and the ability to expand the playbook a bit is something Gopher Football hasn't had in about a decade.
What do you feel is Minnesota's strongest position group going into 2013, and what is the one with the most questions?
The strongest unit heading in to 2013 is kind of a tossup between safety and offensive line. Personally I am most excited about the offensive line. This unit was young and oft-injured in 2012. But I'm confident this will translate into a group that is deep and experienced in 2013. Josh Campion and Zac Epping were both very good last year at RT and G respectively. Both are highly underrated in Big Ten circles and if the Olson brothers can stay healthy at LT and LG, I have very high hopes for the Gopher offensive line.
Did the spring game/practice answer any questions about this team's future?
No, not really. But I'm not sure what questions it would have answered. This team is still rather young with probably 2 seniors starting on offense and maybe up to 3 on the defense. I just want to see this team continue to get better. Expectations of Rose Bowls should not be hung on this program, just getting better and hopefully taking a big step forward in 2014 (when our schedule is BRUTAL, thanks Delaney). To attempt to answer your question, the biggest question going into spring ball was probably the development of Philip Nelson; specifically his accuracy. He finished the spring game completing 13 of 17 passes and started 10/10. Clearly this was not October game-speed but he did what he needed to at least keep the alarm bells from sounding.
Now that the benchmark of a bowl game has been passed, what is the next realistic goal for Minnesota football to aspire to? Is it simply to get back to a bowl, or do you think this team has a realistic chance at going .500 in conference? What kind of expectations are on Jerry Kill after these first two years?
I hope expectations do not rise too quickly, that would be counter-productive to the building of this program. Personally I think getting back to a bowl is a realistic goal. 4-0 in the non-conference should be expected. Then the Gophers host Iowa in week 1 of the Big Ten, 5-0 is a very realistic scenario to start the season. After that the schedule picks up a bit starting with a trip to Michigan. One or two more wins in the final six games would seem to be the height of the Gopher's potential this year unless something strange happens (like 2007 Illinois).
Slowly, Jerry Kill is adding depth and talent to this roster. Slowly this roster is learning to play football at a Big Ten level and I tend to believe that this team is better than their recruiting rankings would lead you to believe. More than 3 Big Ten wins is hard for me to imagine but I don't think the competitive imbalance is what it has been in recent years.
Thanks again to Tom for taking the time to do this Q&A! And remember to check out The Daily Gopher for more info on Minnesota football!