Talk about the difference between Jerry Kill and his predecessor, Tim Brewster. What has Kill done differently? What is the biggest thing you like (or don't like) about Kill?
Tim Brewster’s reign of incompetence and endless nonsense seems like a bad dream at this point, so let’s just say the difference between the two is like having a four-year-old run your football program (Brewster) versus an adult with decades of success as a head coach rebuilding football programs (Kill).
There’s so much to like about Kill that the only negative I can think of is also a positive: his loyalty to his coaching staff. Both of his coordinators have been with him for more than a dozen years, and most of his position coaches for a long time, too. Having the same coordinators for that amount of time can be looked at as a good thing, like they love working with Kill, they have continuity as a staff, and they’re not going to change offensive coordinators literally every season like Brewster did.
But it could be also be a concern, like why haven’t these guys gotten head coaching jobs somewhere or moved on to bigger schools? For defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who was acting head coach for part of last season while Kill was on leave, it’s only a matter of time before he leaves to be a head coach at a MAC school or someplace like that. He’s really good at what he does, and he has created good defenses at every stop.
At Minnesota all Kill has done is take a perennially underachieving and undisciplined (and usually, um, "untalented" if I can make up a word) group and turn them from one of the worst in the conference to a group that last season finished in the top six in the Big Ten in both total defense (6th) and scoring defense (4th) for the first time since 2003. They could be even better this season.
The offense is a much different story. While the ground game is finally coming back around to the Glen Mason Era standards we had become accustomed to here previously (David Cobb’s 1,202 yards last year was the first Gopher back to rush for over 1,000 yards since Mason was coaching in 2006), the passing game has been atrocious, to put it kindly. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover seems like a good guy from his radio interviews, but there has to be concern here about whether he’s cut out to be a BCS conference coordinator. Thus far he has been completely unable to sustain any type of a successful passing game, starting four different quarterbacks in three seasons, three of whom were freshmen at the time.
While everyone else is wanting to go faster and spread the field, this offense wants to use as many tight ends as possible and run as much as possible. This is not a bad thing if you can do it effectively as Wisconsin, Stanford, and even Iowa are good recent examples of non-spread teams that run a lot and win a lot, or at least more than Minnesota has. Yet the Gophers have a long way to go before they can run as well as those schools. Their 586 carries in 2013 was one of the highest totals in the country, yet they were only 37th in yards (2538) and were much further down the list in yards per carry at 4.33.
If you want a successful offense and are not going to average 6+ yards per carry like the top rushing schools, your passing game has to be better than 115th like it was for us last season, averaging just 148 yards per game while completing just 51% of their passes. Trust me, as ugly as those numbers are, it was much more difficult to watch all season long.
Limegrover showed little creativity most of the season until he whipped out the jet sweep and a lot of pre-snap motion versus Nebraska as the Gophers rolled to the upset. That ended up being a brief peak, and by the end of the season, the creativity was gone and so was the offensive production. Minnesota has the head coach, the defense and special teams in place to be a good Big Ten team, but it’s not happening unless Limegrover and the offense can step up. I really hope a quarterback emerges and the offense is viable, because otherwise what does Kill do with an offensive coordinator and close friend who has been with him for more than a dozen years who just isn't getting the job done?
I remember reading on The Daily Gopher comment threads back in 2011 and 2012 that some fans were skeptical of Jerry Kill. What were the reasons for their skepticism? Does the fan base in general feel any differently now? If so, how?
They were skeptical when the hire was made because Kill was probably the 6th or 7th coach the university had interviewed. Our former athletic director, Joel Maturi, had promised a "Tubby Smith-like hire," meaning a big name from a BCS school, which Kill wasn't, so some fans were disappointed at first. Still, it didn't take long to see that despite the former athletic director having little to no clue what he was doing, he still somehow managed to hire a really good coach. Three years later, coming off an eight-win season, any rational Gopher football fan is very happy Kill got the job.
Where do you see this program going in the next 3-5 years? Are they legitimate contenders for getting to and winning the Big Ten championship? What are the fan base's expectations for Gopher football, both short term and long term?
The short term goal for the program is to get past or above the "Glen Mason Line," which was us having bowl eligibility year after year, but never getting to a New Year’s Day bowl. With the revamped bowl line-up, the goal we’re basically talking about is finishing ranked fifth in the conference, or winning five to six Big Ten games.
Based on the schedule, it won’t be this year. Minnesota gets Ohio State and Michigan as cross-over games, while Wisconsin and Iowa get some combo of Indiana, Rutgers and/or Maryland. Seems totally fair, right? Still, with the divisions being re-aligned geographically the way God (or Goldy) intended them, Minnesota is in better shape to compete for the division going forward.
As for the long term, people often point to our border rivals in Wisconsin and Iowa as good measuring sticks for Minnesota’s program as lower population states with few D1 in-state prospects. Obviously with "Sconnie" (Wisconsin) just a year removed from going to three straight Rose Bowls, they’re light-years ahead of anything the Gophers could dream of being. Iowa’s model, however, seems much more reasonable. (Well, minus the $80 gajillion buyout through 2020 for the head coach, like Ferentz has.) Basically, a consistent bowl team who should usually be in contention for four or five Big Ten wins and occasionally, when things break right, a shot at bigger things. Minnesota isn't there yet, but I think those will be realistic expectations for Kill’s program long-term.
Quarterback Philip Nelson transferred out of the program. Strictly speaking about him as a player, was this a big loss for the Maroon and Gold? What did Nelson bring to the offense that it now lacks, if anything? How much better (or worse) will the offense be with Mitch Leidner taking the reins?
Great question, and we’ll find out this fall. Nelson really struggled to put a consistent season together, as he played well last season during our first Big Ten four-game winning streak since 1970, but he was also the starter in our final three losses of the season, when it looked like he hadn't played quarterback before in his life.
Mitch Leidner replaced him midway through the bowl loss to Syracuse and looked better, and it was pretty much expected that Leidner would be "the guy" this spring whether Nelson stuck around or not. That said, Leidner’s track record last season tells us that he runs like a bull in a China shop at 240+ pounds -- one of our Daily Gopher writers nicknamed him "Moose" for that reason -- but he’s got a long ways to go as a passer, which again is the bigger issue.
We’re not looking for Tom Brady or Drew Brees at quarterback, just someone who can complete passes when needed and keep the opposing defense honest. The hope is that Leidner can be that guy because the alternative means turning the reigns over to yet another freshman, for the fourth year in a row.
Who is the biggest threat on offense that opposing teams need to watch out for?
In all likelihood, it will probably be a running back. (I'll talk about Michigan native Berkley Edwards in a bit, since you asked about him specifically, but he’s definitely a candidate.) There are four other running backs on the roster expected to compete for carries, three of whom are 225 pounds or bigger.
Returning is senior David Cobb, who ran for 1,202 yards last season at 5.1 yards a pop and is the most likely to have another big season. Fellow senior Donnell Kirkwood led the team in rushing in 2012 with almost 1,000 yards but was slowed by injuries last season. While junior Rodrick "Nugget" Williams is the biggest of the group at 235 pounds and may be a dark-horse candidate for the starting spot, he also missed time last season due to injury. Tackling him is sort of like trying to tackle a dump truck going downhill, and the coaches were raving about his play this spring.
The wildcard of the group is true freshman Jeff Jones. You know, maybe the only recruit in recent memory for which the Gophers out recruited Michigan. The four-star prospect looks like the real deal and is the complete package at running back, but he may not even play this season because the depth chart already goes four players deep. Still, if there are injuries or a lack of productivity in front of him and he gets a chance, he could be a star right out of the gate.
Conversely, who do we watch out for on defense?
2013’s two best players in defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen were lost to the NFL draft. There’s a number of players to watch on defense, but I’ll give you three. First, junior defensive end Theiren Cockran, who was third in the Big Ten last season in sacks with 7.5 but the fact that he had only ten tackles-for-loss leaves room for improvement. Second, senior middle linebacker Damien Wilson was all over the field last season, and he could be one of the Big Ten's leading tacklers in 2014. Finally, junior cornerback Eric Murray was a nice surprise last year as he started every game in 2013 and was named All-Big Ten honorable mention. He could easily be one of the conference’s best in 2014.
Why are the fans excited for Berkley Edwards?
Berkley Edwards is potentially the first big-play threat out of the backfield Minnesota has had since Laurence Maroney in 2005. He’s obviously different type of running back than Maroney was, as he doesn’t have much size, but his elite speed and ability to go the distance on every touch is something the offense has really been lacking, and we could really use him with the passing game struggles.
The trick, of course, will be finding ways to get him the ball, something Limegrover hasn't shown a lot of creativity with thus far with other players. The hope we have is that the staff will steal a page from Wisconsin’s playbook, who used Melvin Gordon so well on the jet-sweep last year as both a way to get him and James White on the field at the same time and add another element to the offense. With potentially four other good running backs, the hope is we could see Edwards in the backfield and in the slot, and whether it’s straight handoffs, jet sweeps, screens or swing passes, they need to find ways to get him the ball in space because he’s one of the few potential play-makers the Gophers have.
Let's talk about the Michigan/Minnesota rivalry. How much do Gopher fans hate Michigan? Where are we in relation to Minnesota's rivalries with Wisconsin and Iowa? What's the biggest thing you personally hate most about Michigan?
Not a ton of hate for Michigan from the Minnesota fan base, mostly because this hasn't been much of a rivalry, with the Gophers winning just three times since 1977. It’s a cool trophy and anytime Minnesota can beat the Wolverines it’s a big win (no matter where your program is at), but the level of hate fans have for Michigan is well behind both Iowa and Wisconsin, and they have likely been passed up now by Nebraska, too.
As for what I hate about Michigan, it would be the arrogance of some of your fan base, which reminds me, who is going to be the next Michigan Man to save your program after you fire Brady Hoke at the end of the year? That’ll be three coaches and counting since you fired Lloyd Carr because Big Ten titles and BCS bowls just weren't enough. (I know, I know, Minnesota fired Glen Mason because he didn't win enough either, and we’re still trying to just get back to the level of mediocrity he set.)
Minnesota upset a few teams last season (Nebraska, Penn State). Realistically, who should be on notice this year that Minnesota plays? Who do you think they are most likely to upset?
Those two upsets you mentioned last season were both at home, and if there’s a next step for this program, it’s beating a favored opponent on the road. The schedule gives ample opportunity for this as Minnesota’s away games this year include TCU (primed for a big bounce-back this season), Michigan, Illinois (haha, just kidding! Who hasn't enjoyed the Tim Beckham Era? Well, besides Illinois...), Nebraska, and Wisconsin.
Other than Illinois, of those four TCU is the most likely upset candidate. I say that only because they’re installing the Air Raid offense, and I’d much rather face them in week three when they’re hopefully still figuring things out than at the end of the year when they’re rolling. However, the second on the list would be…? Yeah, I don’t really see one.
If forced at gunpoint to choose I’d say Nebraska, but the Gophers haven’t won in Lincoln since 1960. Although nothing would give me greater pleasure than beating Bucky and the Badgers in "Madtown" (Madison), and Wisconsin smells of overrated this year.