Team Previews: Minnesota

BY BEN ROSS | AUGUST 26, 2013 5:00 AM

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Despite coming off a bowl loss to Texas Tech, Minnesota head football coach Jerry Kill was still able to find something to be proud of this offseason.

The team he left in favor of the job in Minneapolis, Northern Illinois — made up largely of players that he recruited — made an Orange Bowl appearance last season after posting an 11-1 record.

Instead of feeling envious of the situation he left in DeKalb, Kill watched Northern Illinois lose to Florida State with a feeling of pride.

“They were pleasant enough to give me a call, and I left our bowl game and went to the Orange Bowl,” Kill said at Big Ten media days in Chicago on July 25. “They treated me tremendously. I think I was proud like a father would be. I was very close to a lot of those kids and know a lot of them. It was a proud moment for me.”

Kill likely wants to have similar feelings of pride going into his third season as the head man for the Gophers. And even with the departure of longtime playmaker MarQueis Gray, Kill may just have his most talented team yet for the Maroon and Gold.

The Gophers return defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman, who recorded six sacks for Minnesota as a junior in 2012. Leading rusher Donnell Kirkwood will be coming back trying to build on his sophomore performance, in which he ran for 925 yards, averaging just under 4.5 yards a carry.

Hageman said he hopes to make a lot of big hits this year to help define his career and noted he looks forward to playing Iowa again — if only as a chance to help redeem his defense for falling victim to a flea-flicker against the Hawkeyes last year in a 31-13 loss in Kinnick Stadium a year ago.

“That definitely caught me off guard,” Hageman told The Daily Iowan at Big Ten media days. “The fact that they could do that, I was like, ‘Dang, they caught me sleeping.’ This year, we’ll definitely mention that in the meeting room.”

On the offensive side of the ball, Philip Nelson will likely take the reins at quarterback after filling in for injuries as a true freshman last season. The native of Mankato, Minn., threw for 8 touchdowns and the same number of interceptions in seven starts a year ago. Whom he will throw to is a different question, because receivers AJ Barker and Devin Crawford-Tufts have departed the team.

Still, Nelson has the confidence of his teammates. Senior defensive back Brock Vereen said the ceiling is high for the Gophers and their quarterback has the ability to take them there.

“I’m looking forward to showing people how good Minnesota can be and has been,” Vereen said at Big Ten media days. “I’m confident we can finally have the year we need to have and deserve to have. Philip Nelson is ready to be successful at the highest level. I think players understand now we’re not just playing for us, we’re playing for the state of Minnesota.”

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