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Big Ten Team Previews: Minnesota

BY JACOB SHEYKO | AUGUST 28, 2014 5:00 AM

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Jerry Kill knows how to turn programs around.

First, it was Southern Illinois, and then their northern neighbor, Northern Illinois. Now it’s Minnesota, who is in its fourth season under Kill’s direction.

With a majority of the players having been brought in by Kill, the expectations for the Gophers are higher than ever.

“I think there's no question we want to continue to improve on what we did last year,” Kill said at Big Ten media days. “And we won eight games, and I think anytime you go into the Big Ten and if you don't have a mission to win the Big Ten, then why play?”

After going 8-5 in their third season under Kill, Minnesota has a lot going for them as a team.

They have a starting quarterback, Mitch Leidner, who received a fair amount of playing time while running a two-quarterback system with former-Gopher Philip Nelson. Also returning is running back David Cobb, who ran for 1,202 yards last season.

And most importantly, they have — according to several players — perhaps the closest-knit group that Kill has coached during his time at Minnesota.

“It’s hard to say, if you are around our facility and are around this team, there’s just love and a bond with our teammates that is unreal,” defensive back Cedric Thompson said, failing to hold back his smile. “I feel like blood couldn’t make us any closer, like those are my real brothers.

“From the weight room, to the field, to even hanging out in the players lounge, or going to another player’s house to play video games, we’re one big family and that’s going to make us really good.”

The Gophers have eight returning starters on offense — excluding the several starts that Leidner made — and seven on the defensive side of the ball.

With Leidner at quarterback, Cobb expects a more balanced offensive attack than the usual ground-and-pound running game from previous years.

“We’re going to run the ball, we’re going to be physical. I think everyone knows that,” Cobb said. “I think this year, we’ll be more explosive with the passing game. Our receivers and Mitch, their chemistry has gotten 10 times better over the offseason.”

Minnesota also has a fairly favorable schedule, particularly the first eight games, where their toughest opponent will likely be a September game at Michigan.

But the Gophers finish off the season brutally, facing Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin in the final four weeks.

Minnesota won’t likely be favored in any of those games to end the season. But getting the respect they think they deserve is something they’ve gotten used to.

Even with a handful of returning starters, strong team chemistry, and a coach that has turned around program after program, the Gophers enter this season as underdogs in the Big Ten.

In Leidner’s eyes, that will be the case until they compete for a Big Ten championship.

“We’ll see what happens,” Leidner said. “We have our die-hard Gopher fans that have stuck with us through thick and thin, but there are a lot of people waiting for us to turn the corner, and this year is going to be the year.”

Follow @JacobSheyko on Twitter for updates, news, and analysis about the Iowa football team.


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