Adventures in Offense 2013: Minnesota

Running back Donnell Kirkwood. - Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE

2012 Quick Stats

Passing Offense: 9th in Big Ten, 109th Nationally
Rushing Offense: 7th in Big Ten, 68th Nationally
Scoring Offense: 9th in Big Ten, 96th Nationally
Total Offense: 10th in Big Ten, 111th Nationally

3rd Down Conversions: 36.31% (65 out of 179 attempts)
4th Down Conversions: 43.75% (7 out of 16 attempts)
Red Zone Conversions: 82.93% (34 out of 41 attempts)
Total Points: 287 (35 TD, 14 FG, 33 extra point, 0 two-point)
Average points per game: 22.1

2012 Record: 6-7 (2-6 in Big Ten)
Record vs. Michigan: 24-72-3
Head Coach Jerry Kill: 9-16 at Minnesota, 136-89 overall

What's up with the offense?

If you look at the stats, the numbers say that Minnesota sputtered as an offense despite getting to six wins and that all-important bowl game benchmark. The Golden Gophers are in the bottom half of the Big Ten in essentially every category. However, if you look at the stats from 2011, you'll see something of an improvement. They jumped from 11th in passing to 9th, despite the fact that they changed quarterbacks halfway through the season, and the new quarterback happened to be a true freshman.

Where the Gophers improved probably most drastically is in their running game. Although the numbers are relatively close (1920 yards in 2011; 1975 in 2012), the difference is more in who was carrying the ball. Anyone who watched Minnesota in 2011 could see that it was really just quarterback MarQueis Gray who pretty much carried the offense on his back. Gray had 199 carries for 966 yards, outshining senior running back Duane Bennett (166 carries for 639 yards). In 2012, the emergence of Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams allowed for the Gophers to have their first truly balanced attack.

Gray was the leading passer in 2011, too, with 1495 yards, and at first glance that might seem to outweigh the performance by freshman Philip Nelson, with 873 yards, who took the reins of the offense in 2012, making his first start against Wisconsin. However, Nelson's numbers would be much higher had he played in all 13 games, as Gray had played in 11 in 2011. So in the absence of those stats we can project that Nelson would have surpassed Gray if giving more opportunities. Presumably he'll get the chance in 2013 as the undisputed starter.

Kill's offense is a mashup of just about everything, and back in 2010 he said in his first press conference that the offense would be a "multiple." For the most part he's stuck to that. Although they sometimes lined up in the shotgun with a five wide set (a distinctive spread set), offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover likes to play more on the conservative side: Minnesota had 517 rushing attempts to 330 passing. With an offensive line that looked like it was getting better every game, and a tandem of now-proven running backs in Kirkwood and Williams, no one's surprised when the Gophers line up in the Maryland-I, although it might have been a pleasant surprise for Gopher fans to see it actually work.

If the spring game is any indication, the Gophers should at least be able to move the ball:


But will this translate into wins? The Gopher fans are pretty optimistic, and a poll at The Daily Gopher put expectations generally in the realm of 7 wins.

The biggest concern? The development of quarterback Philip Nelson. Gopher fans are hoping he makes a solid jump from true freshman to true sophomore:

Leadership and accuracy are the major questions heading into his sophomore season. After his first two starts he finished the season completing only 43.3% of his passes (over final 5 games). Everyone was willing to accept the fact that we were giving reps to a true freshman in the teeth of the Big Ten schedule, but accuracy needs to dramatically improve if Nelson is to lead this offense to more yards-points-wins this season. Reports are that he has improved his leadership and ownership of the huddle, which are positive signs of overall improvement.

There's a pretty interesting discussion on The Daily Gopher on the issue of offensive depth, and if you're into "Football Study Hall"-style graphs and charts, there's a heavy duty review of the Minnesota spring game that I can't even begin to understand.

Key Players

Unlike so many other programs in college football, there's not a lot of mystery about who's going to be starting at quarterback for Minnesota. It's Philip Nelson. The 6'2", 222 lbs. sophomore started in seven games as a true freshman and was one of the clear reasons why the Gophers made it to bowl eligibility. He led the team in passing with 75 completions in 154 attempts for 873 yards and 8 touchdowns. Though his completion percentage is a lowly 48.7% and he averaged 124.7 yards a game, presumably those numbers would have been better had he played in all 13 games instead of simply the last seven.

If you're a Gopher fan you have to love Nelson. He's a hometown hero who went largely unnoticed by the larger powers of college football because Minnesota as a state tends to go largely unnoticed at the high school level. Though he grew up a Badger fan, Nelson moved with his family from Wisconsin to Minnesota, and after developing some love for the home team, he pledged to help Jerry Kill build something worthwhile in Minneapolis. And whilst he wasn't covered much by the recruiting sites, Nelson was a huge get for Kill's staff and could possibly become the best quarterback the program has ever seen under center.

Backing up Nelson are two guys who have not taken a collegiate snap: redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and redshirt sophomore Dexter Foreman. True freshman Chris Streveler could be in the mix as well. Of those three, Leidner had the best performance in the spring game and looks to have the best shot at playing time relieving Nelson or in the event of an injury. There was some controversy when Kill decided to burn Nelson's redshirt in 2012, which prompted Max Shortell, the guy who would have been most likely to start going into 2013, to transfer. However, hindsight shows that it worked out because, had Nelson still been redshirted, there would be some mystery as to what the Gophers have at quarterback beyond Shortell (assuming he stayed), and what we saw in 2012 from Nelson shows that he would have beaten out Shortell anyway, so the transfer was inevitable.

If there's one position at which the Gophers seem set, it's probably running back. This is kind of ironic considering that Minnesota was desperately looking for a running game going into 2012. Donnell Kirkwood is the guy. He's got the beef (5'10", 219 lbs.) and led the team in rushing with 925 yards, just 75 short of cracking 1,000. The Gophers might not have had a single 1,000-yard rusher, but they were able to get to 1,186 with the combination of Kirkwood and Rodrick "Nugget" Williams, something that Michigan's OC Al Borges aspires to do every season, if not with one rusher, than at least with a couple combined.

James Gillum, a JUCO transfer from Mississippi last year, was supposed to be the guy, considering the amount of praise he got from Kill's staff and the fact that Kill had been trying to get him since coaching at Northern Illinois, but Gillum was pretty much a non-factor in his first year on the field. He had six carries and 27 total rushing yards, meaning that he's probably slated to be the backup of the backup for much of the foreseeable future.

While I might be biased towards beefy power running backs like Kirkwood and Williams, Gopher fans are justifiably excited about incoming freshman Berkley Edwards (brother of former Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards), a scatback from Chelsea, MI. Edwards might not fit the bill for beef (5'9", 185 lbs.), but he offers a change-of-pace option on trick plays or third downs--sort of like what Vincent Smith was for Michigan from time to time. Basically, Berkley Edwards projects to be Minnesota's version of Dennis Norfleet.

The good news at wide receiver for Minnesota is that the Gophers have nearly everyone who caught a pass coming back, with three notable exceptions in departed seniors Brandon Green and MarQueis Gray, as well as leading receiver A.J. Barker, who left the program bitterly with some negative press for head coach Jerry Kill. The next man up is senior Derrick Engel, who had the second-most yards behind Barker. Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruetche are also budding stars that each hope to have breakout seasons as juniors. Finally, there is sophomore Andre McDonald, who was the Gophers' most-touted recruit in 2012 and who made a solid contribution as a true freshman.

The Gophers no longer have John Rabe, the team's leading tight end in receptions, but fans hope that Drew Goodger and Maxx Williams will pick up right where he left off. The Daily Gopher says that Goodger is the closest thing they have to Rabe, and Williams had a good showing in the spring game. Beyond that the Maroon and Gold will have to rely on Lincoln Plsek, who played as a true freshman in 2012, and Alex Bisch. There is also converted defensive lineman Kendall Gregory-McGee as a potential option, according to the Daily Gopher, but that seems unlikely unless injuries at the position make the Gophers desperate. Looking at Minnesota's roster, that's a distinct possibility.

What about the OL? Generally speaking, this should be the best offensive line that Jerry Kill has had at Minnesota. In 2011 and 2012, he was playing with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, most of which didn't really show maturity (in a football sense) till the tail end of the season. The line for 2013 has both depth and experience relative to mid-level Big Ten powers, and should do fine. With guys like Ed Olson and Zach Mottla, both seniors, along with Jonah Pirsig eventually getting in there, the line should project to at least match the effort of 2012, which would be a step forward for a unit that continues to grow and develop.

Conclusion

There's little doubt that Minnesota could emerge as a scrappier team in the vein of Northwestern in 2013. Offensively, they're making strides and find themselves on very solid ground, certainly much better than they were two years ago when the Kill-doubters were out in force. A quarterback like Nelson can do wonders for the development and identity of a program, and after the spring game Gopher fans saw players that they can count on at pretty much every position.

That doesn't completely erase all the questions. Just because Kill might have the best offensive line he's seen at Minnesota doesn't mean it will be the best in the conference. It should be serviceable, enough to get them through the non-conference schedule with relative ease as well as two or three Big Ten wins to grant them a return trip to a bowl game. But a serviceable offense doesn't always do great against solid competition. The Gophers were 1-6 against FBS teams with winning records last season.

The question about Minnesota's offense isn't so much if they have answers for their questions. They do. With an established starter at the helm taking snaps under center, an equally established running back tandem, plenty of receiver threats, and an experienced offensive line, there doesn't seem to be too much standing in the way of the Gophers matching their record from last year, at least from an offensive standpoint. The question is more if those answers are enough to go beyond it.

Grade: B

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