By: Steven Lassan | 6/5/11, 1:41 PM EDT
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Big Ten Legends PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Jerry Kill, | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Limegrover | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tracy Claeys
The Gophers can’t make trades like a professional team, but it sure feels like they did in acquiring their new quarterback. They found a mobile passer — but gave up one of their best receivers to do it. The passer is junior MarQueis Gray, who caught 42 passes for 587 yards while waiting for his turn taking snaps. Gray’s running ability is a good fit for new coach Jerry Kill’s system, but nobody knows if he’s got the arm for the job. He’d better, because the Gophers have no other quarterback with his size, speed or experience.
Gray’s former running mate at receiver, Da’Jon McKnight, is nearly as indispensable as the quarterback, because Minnesota has nobody else with his all-conference-level talent. McKnight, who caught 10 TDs last year, faces a season of double coverage, unless tight end Eric Lair can take some of the pressure off.
A running attack would help, too, but Minnesota’s tailbacks seem to produce less than the sum of their parts. Duane Bennett averaged 23.8 yards after his first two games. DeLeon Eskridge became the go-to back by default, but he left the team in early June. With three freshmen around, too, Kill intends to spread the ball around in hopes of getting a lot more out of the Big Ten’s 10th-rated rushing unit.
The defensive line will be improved, because it couldn’t be much worse. Minnesota’s last-in-the-Big-Ten rushing defense was “exceeded” only by its pass rush — which, with only nine sacks, was the most feeble in the entire country.
The days of stationary, man-the-gaps coverage are over. Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys intend to revive the blitz in the Gophers’ playbook, sacrificing bulk in order to send speedy-but-undersized linebackers and defensive ends toward the quarterback. The hope is that increased pressure will take the heat off an inexperienced secondary, where 5'10" Troy Stoudermire, a former receiver who nearly quit the team when switched to defense last season, is the best cover corner.
The linebackers should be the heart of the defense, particularly with the addition of sophomore middle backer Brendan Beal, who transferred from Florida and sat out last year. At 6'3", 245, he’s got the size to anchor run coverage while his teammates try to create havoc that was missing last year.
Kill has made punting a priority after inheriting the NCAA’s worst net-punting team. “If we improve (that), we’ll win two more games,” he promises. But he’ll try to do it with the same punter, inconsistent sophomore Dan Orseske. Kill lured NC State transfer kicker Chris Hawthorne to handle field goals after the Gophers ranked 10th in the Big Ten.
On the day he was hired to coach the Gophers in 2007, Tim Brewster proclaimed that “our expectation is to win a Big Ten championship now.” On the day he was hired last December to replace Brewster, Kill said, “I can give you all those promises. But those are false promises.”
Kill’s candor has captivated his new audience, even as he makes it clear that the Gophers’ roster is short on Big Ten talent, because he has a track record of turning around decrepit football programs. Still, Kill has never faced a brutal Big Ten schedule. The Gophers have no experienced quarterback, only one tested receiver, and a defense that managed only nine sacks.
“I can’t promise you wins,” the straight-talker says, “but I can promise you we’re going to get better every day.”
For now, that’s enough for Minnesota.