Big Ten Football Previews: Minnesota


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The Minnesota football team didn’t make sweeping changes after losing nine of its 12 games last season. The Gophers didn’t clean house, fire their head coach, or go out in search of new coordinators.

And that’s the biggest reason the Gophers feel good heading into this year.

When Jerry Kill arrived in Minnesota last season, the team had played under four offensive coordinators in the last five years. It had seen three defensive coordinator changes under the past head two coaches, Glen Mason and Tim Brewster.

Not a single staff member changed jobs after Kill’s first season. The former Northern Illinois coach said at Big Ten media day on July 26 that three assistants had offers from other schools but chose to stay put.

“You’ve got seniors that have seen four or five different coordinators. There just hasn’t been a lot of stability in the program,” Kill said. “This year, we didn’t lose one coach, not one person in academics. Our kids have never seen that here. There’s some trust that we are going to try to change this thing, and we do want to be here.”

The team showed life in the second half of last season. The Gophers beat Iowa on Oct. 29, came within a touchdown of beating Legends Division champion Michigan State the next week, and routed Illinois by 20 points in the season finale.

“In your first year, you’re trying to rebuild a program, and I think we got better at the end of the year,” Kill said. “Even in a couple losses, we could see the improvement of our football team.”

But the Gophers will need to keep improving to move up from the bottom of the Big Ten. The defense allowed almost 32 points per game last season, second worst in the conference.

Senior linebacker Keanon Cooper said familiarity with the team’s schemes would help.

“There’ll be a lot less thinking and a lot more guys running around playing ball,” he said. “We haven’t had stability around here in a while, and you’ll be able to see just how well we’ve grasped the defense. Guys will be running around making plays.”

Talented but inconsistent quarterback MarQueis Gray leads the offense. Iowa fans may remember Gray bulldozing Hawkeye defenders for a game-winning touchdown last season. He ran for 966 yards in 2011, and offensive lineman Ed Olson called him a “freak of a playmaker.” But Gray only completed 50 percent of his throws, something that needs to get better for Minnesota’s offense to become more dangerous.

“He’s been working out so hard, watching so much film,” Olson said of Gray. “He knows the offense like the back of his hand, and he’s a great leader. He’s going to have a great season.”

Minnesota likely doesn’t have the talent to move into the upper tier of the conference. But Kill and his staff are working to slowly change the culture. The coach urged that you can’t “change 45 years of not winning a Big Ten championship in one season.”

And Olson thinks it’s working.

“The first year, not everyone was buying in to everything Coach Kill was implementing,” he said. “Those guys are gone now, and everyone’s bought in to this. With everyone knowing the plays and the schemes that much better, I think it’s going to be a great year.”

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