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Updated: August 29th, 2011 12:14am
Sandell: Three questions facing Gophers with start of Kill era looming

Sandell: Three questions facing Gophers with start of Kill era looming

by Nate Sandell

An exhaustive off-season is nearly over.

But coach Jerry Kill, who will make his "U" football debut Saturday in the Gophers' 2011 season opener against USC, wishes it wasn't so.

"I'd like to wait four or five more weeks and get our team ready to play and get to know more about our team, but I can't," Kill said.

Answers about the makeup of this year's young Gophers squad will start to be discovered shortly. In the meantime, questions abound as to what to expect from Kill's first year.

1. Is 27 the Gophers' lucky number?

Jerry Kill wasn't the "Tubby Smith" big-name hire athletic director Joel Maturi set out to find after Tim Brewster's tumultuous tenure with the Gophers came to a crashing halt last October.

One can forgive the school's wavering fan base then for its trepidation when Kill became the 27th head coach in Gophers' history on Dec. 10, 2010. Months later, however, the decision to go with the former Northern Illinois coach is having its desired effect.

Kill's anti-Brewster approach -- tempered expectations with realistic goals -- has replaced those initial doubts and surrounded the program with a reinvigorated sense of optimism.

The on-field product is what matters though. In terms of pure-talent, the Gophers are lacking. Kill has countered his team's deficiencies by instilling a relentless, no-excuses mentality and it has taken hold. Whether that translates to winning results won't be known for several weeks, but a turnaround is in progress.

This isn't the first time Kill has been tasked with jump-starting a program. In his five previous coaching stops he produced winning seasons within two or three years, including taking a one-win Southern Illinois team in 2001 and turning the Salukis into back-to-back 10-game winners two years later.

The trick this time is doing so in a major conference.

Kill's success this season shouldn't be judged on his win total this season, even though a one or two game improvement on the Gophers' 3-9 2010 record would go a long way toward giving him leeway to tweak the team to his specifications.

"You've got to worry about what you can control and you can control what you do on the football field," Kill often says. "My job is to make sure our football team gets better on a day-to-day basis."

2. Can MarQueis Gray hold his own at quarterback?

No player on the Gophers' roster enters this season with more at stake than junior quarterback MarQueis Gray. His ability, or inability, to adeptly command the "U" offense will directly determine the success of coordinator Matt Limegrover's system.

Handed the reins to the offense in the spring, Gray has benefited from the trust the coaching staff has shown in him. As his understanding of his role has expanded, so has Gray's comfort level. Technique issues have even begun to be remedied.

"It's the little things - getting us in and out of the huddle with calls from the sidelines, the center-quarterback exchange - those things have really gotten better," Limegrover said.

The 6-foot-4, 229-pound junior, gifted with an almost uncanny natural athletic ability, portrays an unwavering confidence in himself. It has remained intact despite the crush of attention from onlookers, which comes along with being the face of the program.

But he hasn't yet proven he can play quarterback at the Big Ten level or if he can withstand the painful growing pains associated with resurrecting an offense that are sure to occur.

Accuracy under pressure was a notable flaw in Gray' s performances during the Gophers' two public scrimmages this summer, glaringly missing several intended targets when faced with a blitzing linebacker. The inexperience of much of his supporting cast doesn't help. Scrambling away from trouble isn't a problem for him, but he has to be careful not to do that too much.

Patience is needed when trying to project Gray's success. Having thrown only 23 passes in his first two seasons, he must be granted time to adapt to the nuances of the position and allowed an early pass for the inevitable mental mistake or two. However, if the Gray experiment is failing seven or eight weeks into the year, Kill can't be afraid to make a mid-season switch, bringing in either true freshman Max Shortell or redshirt freshman Tom Parish.

3. Is lack of depth as much an issue as Kill says it is?

To put it simply, yes.

The Gophers have 15 returning starters, if you include Gray, who played wide receiver in 2010. Finding the players to fill the remaining holes, while giving themselves enough leeway off the bench, is where the problem lies.

"Lack of depth" has become a buzzword for Kill, but it's in line with his willingness to point out flaws in his team. The physical and mental fatigue shown by the Gophers in the third week of fall camp proved they are still short of Kill's perceived vision.

"As a coach you have to get a feel about when you've pushed them as far as you can push them," Kill said last Thursday, explaining his decision to shorten practice. "I'd like to go a lot longer, but we don't have the depth and don't have the know-how to do it the way we want to do it right now."

That's not to say the coaches aren't adapting to the roster they have. The youthfulness of this year's team has created openings for players who likely otherwise wouldn't get a chance to compete for playing time.

This is most apparent at running back and wide receiver, which features an array of first-timers. Apart from established senior Duane Bennett, the Gophers rushing attack includes two redshirt freshmen -- Lamonte Edwards and Donnell Kirkwood -- as well as true freshmen Devon Wright and power back David Cobb. The same is true at receiver, where newcomers Malcolm Moulton, Marcus Jones, Devin Crawford-Tufts and Ge'Shun Harris are set to line-up alongside star senior Da'Jon McKnight.

On defense, the "U" has more experience to work with, anchored by seniors Kim Royston, Brandon Kirksey, Troy Stoudermire and Gary Tinsley. The underclassmen though will still be critical in the defensive rotation.

With depth a concern, maintaining a healthy roster takes on a heightened importance. Despite a recent rash of injuries, the Gophers have managed to make it through camp with minimal issues. A long-term injury, however, to any of the "U's" starters, especially on offense, could effectively disrupt whatever potential momentum the squad may establish.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to
Email Nate | @nsandell