by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Jerry Kill hit several roadblocks in his first season in the Big Ten. First, he had to readjust the attitudes of the players that had been turned off by ex-coach Tim Brewster, who failed in his first attempt as a college head coach. Then Kill had to deal with the level of play in the Big Ten, definitely a step up from his last station in the MAC at Northern Illinois. Then there were his own health problems, as he suffered from seizures that took him away from the team for a time during the season. Sadly, on April 6, starting linebacker Gary Tinsley, who had exhausted his eligibility after playing every game in 2011, died suddenly due to an enlarged heart, and his loss cast an emotional shadow on the players. Additionally, spring workouts opened with the Gophers looking for replacements of their top two receivers, top running back and top two tacklers. Sounds depressing, right?

Pay no mind. There is light at the end of the tunnel leading out onto the field at TCF Bank Stadium on the Minnesota campus. Kill has a curious knack for improving seemingly hopeless football teams dramatically, usually in the third year. His teams at Saginaw Valley St., Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois went a combined 29-7 in year three of his regime. All three programs were in dire straits when he took over. This is his second season at Minneapolis, and longtime Gopher fans report change is in the air.

There were signs of life in the second half of last season, when Kill’s Gophers went 4-0-1 against the number in their final five games, springing upsets of Iowa and Illinois (both as double-digit home dogs). The transformation really took hold this past spring, when even the players had trouble telling the players without a program, as numerous early-enrollee freshmen and junior college transfers worked their way onto and up the depth chart.

Problems were everywhere last season for Minnesota, but one bright spot was the development of sr. QB Marqueis Gray (right), who was playing the position full time for the first time at the college level. Gray led the team in rushing (966 YR; 4.9 ypc) and threw for 1495 yards and 8 TDs while completing 51% of his passes. With Gray as a building block, the offense could improve, although the team ranked 111th in scoring last season and could manage to score just 3 points in the spring game. Kill wanted to give his offense a chance to put something more on the board, so when the clock ran out on the spring game, he had 15 minutes put back on and his starters in on offense. Still nothing. To be fair, the leading candidate to take the starting running back role, RS soph Donnell Kirkwood, injured his hamstring on virtually the first drill of the spring and made just a token appearance toward the end of workouts. Juco James Gillum was the only completely healthy running back during spring, so he now has a bit of a leg up on playing time in the fall. Gillum rushed for 2339 yards and 25 TDs in the last two seasons for Mississippi Gulf Port JC, and was one of the most productive runners in the state of Louisiana as a prep. As far as the future goes, Kill has a stable of promising young QBs ready to get their feet wet if Gray either falters or is injured.

The offensive line returns four full or part-time starters, and could get an additional vet back if RS soph T Jimmy Gjere can shake off the effects of concussion syndrome that kept him out of the last seven contests. Although Gray’s athleticism had a lot to do with it, the OL did help the Gophers grind out a respectable 4.1 ypc a year ago. But Kill must develop some receiving threats. The deep threats have been inconsistent, although returnees Brandon Green and Malcolm Moulton combined for 29 catches. The conversion of ex-QB Moses Alipate (6-5 & up to 290 lbs.) to tight end looks like a success, but he and holdover TE John Rabe act more as blockers in Kill’s attack (Rabe had just 4 catches last season). It remains to be seen if a successor to WR Da’Jon McKnight (51 catches last season) will emerge from the wideout prospects.

Kill has been a busy recruiter, signing 31 players (preps & jucos combined) on Feb. 1 national signing day. Eight of those signees were enrolled and participated in spring. Kill placed a heavy emphasis on filling needs on the defensive side, in particular bolstering a 2ndary that ranked 107th in pass efficiency defense.

To that end, juco CBs Jeremy Baltazar and Martez Shabazz will likely start, and Coffeyville CC product Briean Boddy could be the nickel back. The secondary got an additional boost from the NCAA, which granted another year of eligibility to 5th-year sr. CB Troy Stoudermire, who missed the final eight games last season due to injury. With the influx of quality juco cornerbacks, Brock Vereen, last year’s starting CB, was shifted to safety. Hopefully the refurbished pass defense will get some help from an improved pass rush, which is expecting a jump in production from jr. DE Ra’Shede Hageman (6-6, 300) and anticipates increased contributions from soph DE Michael Amaefula, who appeared much more effective this spring. The linebacking corps, which was the most experienced and solid part of the defense, suffered setbacks in spring when 5th-year seniors Mike Rallis (83 stops in 2011; hamstring injury in spring) and Keanon Cooper (77; wrist injury) both sat out spring. As a result, Kill shuffled in some players from speed positions (RB, DB) to see if they could help at linebacker. Not so much.

Summary: The “Kill Magic” usually casts its spell in the third year of his reign, so don’t expect miracles. However, considering last year’s positive results in November and the fact that the first five games are all winnable (UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse, the latter three at home), a five or six-win season isn’t out of the question. And don’t forget, the Gophers are 8-3 against the number the last two seasons on the road.


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