Kill looks to rebuild struggling Minnesota program

BY MATT COZZI | AUGUST 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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Jerry Kill is no stranger to rebuilding college-football programs.

Now at the helm for Minnesota, he has proven he can accumulate successful results at the Division-I level.

At Southern Illinois, Kill became the first coach in school history to produce four-consecutive winning seasons — he took the Salukis to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs from 2003-07. Then, at Northern Illinois, Kill led the Huskies to three bowl games over the last three seasons as he turned the program into a consistent contender in the Mid-American Conference.

Hired in December 2010 to take over the Golden Gophers (3-9, 2-6 Big Ten in 2010), Kill is faced with a more daunting task entering the Big Ten.

Still, his familiarity with pushing programs forward seems to be a plus heading into the 2011 season and beyond.

"All the things through my five or six months that I've been at University of Minnesota are the same problems we had at other places," Kill said last month at Big Ten media days in Chicago. "Now, we've got to fix 'em. That comes with being able to sell the vision of our program to our fans, athletics department, [and] our president.

"I have a vision … if we do those kinds of things, we'll have a chance to be very successful in the Big Ten."

With a rushing offense that ranked 10th and a passing offense that ranked eighth in the conference last season, that vision may start at the quarterback position.

Junior MarQueis Gray, a highly ranked dual-threat quarterback prospect coming out of high school, spent the majority of the last two seasons at wide receiver.

Now, the Indianapolis native is poised to lead the offense.

"Most people say I'm a dual-threat, so when the play breaks down, I just try to get a first down," Gray said during Big Ten media days. "Dual-threat quarterbacks are hard to stop, so hopefully, defenses will have trouble stopping us."

He will likely hand off to Duane Bennett, who led Minnesota with 996 all-purpose yards in 2010. Da'Jon McKnight tops the receiving corps for the Golden Gophers; the 6-3, 215-pound target led the team with 10 touchdown catches last season.

The majority of the snaps went to Gray in spring ball, and he said his throws have improved since arriving on campus two years ago.

"I feel like I'm a good passer," he said. "It stings a little bit that when you get that title of dual-threat quarterback, [because] people think you can really only run. You just need to prove that you can throw the deep ball and make accurate throws."

On the defensive side, linebacker Brendan Beal could be the difference maker Minnesota sought during the Tim Brewster era. The former Parade high-school All-American sat out in 2010 after transferring from Florida.

Minnesota's schedule appears fairly difficult, with a trip to USC to open the season. The Golden Gophers do face conference contenders Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin at home in TCF Bank Stadium, however.

Bennett said his team's Big Ten home-opener against the Cornhuskers will set the tone for how Minnesota performs in league play.

"It's a great atmosphere [at TCF Bank Stadium]. Around the campus, we get a lot of fans involved," the senior running back said. "With [Nebraska] being the addition to the Big Ten, it's going to bring a lot more tradition to what we already have. They have a great coaching staff, great players. It's going to be huge for us."

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