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2013 Big Ten football previews: Minnesota (premium)

Posted on 17. Aug, 2013 by in Iowa Football

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By Brendan Stiles

HawkeyeDrive.com

After previewing the Big Ten’s Leaders Division consisting of Penn State, Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, No. 23 Wisconsin and No. 2 Ohio State, our first look at the Legends Division features the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Iowa will visit TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn., on Sept. 28.

Last season, Minnesota made the type of stride I expected it to make in head coach Jerry Kill’s second year at the helm. The Golden Gophers managed to reach six wins and found themselves playing against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, a game they lost on a last-second field goal last December. When I look at Minnesota this year, I think it will have a harder time becoming bowl-eligible because the schedule for 2013 is tougher in all facets, so the margin of error that was there in 2012 is thinner now, if not completely non-existent.

Offensively, I think the most encouraging thing for the Golden Gophers is that Kill has his guy at quarterback now in sophomore Philip Nelson, who had his redshirt burned midway through last season and started Minnesota’s final seven games including the bowl game against Texas Tech. As a freshman, Nelson threw eight touchdowns to eight interceptions and completed less than 50 percent of his throws. Those are numbers he should improve on and quite frankly he’ll need to be better if the Golden Gophers are going to have any sort of success offensively this fall.

Right now, I envision Minnesota being a heavily run-oriented offense in 2013 because one of the playmakers the Golden Gophers do return is junior running back Donnell Kirkwood. Last season, Kirkwood started all 13 of Minnesota’s games and led the team in rushing with 218 carries for 926 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Add in the fact that the Golden Gophers used the Maryland-I formation in their bowl game and I feel a major emphasis will be placed early on establishing a rushing attack.

There are two other things to consider regarding Minnesota’s offense likely being more run-heavy — one good and one bad. The bad news is there’s a drop-off in the Golden Gophers’ receiving corps. Junior wideout Isaac Fruechte statistically had the best 2012 of any current receiver and he only hauled in 19 catches for 256 yards and two touchdowns. Minnesota’s other most-experienced receiver is senior Derrick Engel, who had 18 catches for 375 yards and one touchdown. Unless true freshman Donovahn Jones flawlessly transitions into that quarterback/wide receiver hybrid that MarQueis Gray had been, there’s not much here.

Now here’s the good news — Minnesota has a pretty veteran offensive line returning in 2013. All five projected starters for this season played significantly last year. Senior Ed Olson returns at left tackle, where he started nine games in 2012. Junior Zac Epping and sophomore Jon Christenson can both be used at either guard or center. Junior Caleb Bak started 11 games at right guard last season and sophomore Josh Campion is the one linemen who started every game at one position (right tackle). This group is a strength that will allow the Golden Gophers to rely on their ground game.

Looking at the defensive line, there is one huge loss at one of the defensive end spots with D.L. Wilhite no longer around. All he did last season was lead Minnesota with 8.5 sacks, which was tied for third most among all Big Ten players in 2012. However, the three guys returning to the front four all started every game last season, including the guy I believe to be the best defensive player in the entire conference this season — senior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman.

As a junior, Hageman actually compiled more tackles than Wilhite and his six sacks were tied for sixth among all Big Ten players. At 6-6, 311 pounds, Hageman is the real deal and I think he has a monster senior year regardless of how Minnesota does as a team. Hageman will be alongside juniors Cameron Botticelli at nose tackle and Michael Amaefula at end. Sophomore Theiren Cockran is the current odds-on favorite to take over Wilhite’s void at that other end position.

The linebacking corps is the biggest question mark on this team, which has one proven commodity at strong-side backer in senior Aaron Hill, who tied for third on the team with 74 tackles. Sophomore De’Vondre Campbell currently sits atop the Golden Gophers’ depth chart at the weak-side backer spot and then the middle linebacker position will likely be occupied by either junior college transfer Damien Wilson or redshirt freshman Jack Lynn. Either way, filling the voids left by Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper will be challenging.

Minnesota’s secondary lost the team’s top tackler from 2012 in cornerback Troy Stoudemire, who had 82 of them. Also gone is corner Michael Carter, who led the Golden Gophers with 15 pass break ups last season. Senior Brock Vereen split time at both safety positions and is currently listed as the team’s top free safety, while junior Cedric Thompson is at strong safety after starting eight games in 2012. Junior Derrick Wells started 11 games at safety last season, but has made the move to cornerback this season and will play there opposite sophomore Eric Murray.

Special teams is a huge question mark surrounding Minnesota right now. The Golden Gophers return two punters in senior Dan Orseke and junior Christian Eldred. Orseke didn’t play at all last season, which allowed Eldred to handle 67 punts with an average of 38.1 yards per punt. Minnesota also needs to figure out who its kicker will be and there’s a possibility of it being a true freshman in Ryan Santoso. Stoudemire’s absence also leaves a huge void in the return game as he was regarded as one of the best returners in the entire conference throughout his career.

Looking at the Golden Gophers’ schedule, they should have zero trouble reaching 3-0. The two games that I think are crucial for Minnesota if its going to be bowl-eligible for the second straight season are both at TCF Bank Stadium in late September. The final non-conference game is against a San Jose State squad that won 11 games last season and returns a big-time quarterback in David Fales. Then there’s that Big Ten opener the following week against Iowa. The Hawkeyes throttled Minnesota last season in Iowa City despite the Golden Gophers being the better team last season. Seeing how both will have tough sledding against the rest of the Legends Division, this is a game that could be make or break for Minnesota in 2013.

The rest of the Golden Gophers’ Big Ten slate is brutal. Of the teams considered to be contenders in the Legends Division, only No. 18 Nebraska travels to the Twin Cities this year and the crossover home games come in November against Penn State and No. 23 Wisconsin. The road portion features No. 17 Michigan, No. 22 Northwestern, a Michigan State squad entering this season just outside the top 25 and an up-and-coming Indiana squad in Bloomington. In other words, another 2-6 mark during Big Ten play might be the most plausible scenario again for Minnesota.

I think Kill is a solid coach and a good fit for this program. I also believe he’s slowly yet successfully molding his team into the type of identity he wants it to have. But with all that being said, there’s some real tough sledding ahead this season and in terms of wins and losses, it shouldn’t come as a shock if the Golden Gophers take a small step backwards this fall.

AUDIO:

Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill — 

Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman — 

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