Wolfson: Kill's Gophers should have eye on bowl game next season
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At Tuesday's last in-season presume news conference, Gophers coach Jerry Kill was emphatic in stating, "I will tell you, we'll be better next year. I can tell you that. Our goal is going to be set high. I'm not going to tell you (those goals) today because I haven't talked to our team and all that."
Kill doesn't need to talk to his team for them to realize that the goal is simple: six wins and bowl eligibility.
With a softer non-conference schedule, which includes UNLV, Western Michigan, New Hampshire, and a home game vs. Syracuse, that should be four wins. The Big Ten schedule includes home games with Purdue and Northwestern, and the always winnable game at Illinois.
2012 Outlook Position-by-Position:
QB: MarQueis Gray's receivers led the Big Ten in drops. While his accuracy has to improve, his numbers this year could've been a lot better. After overcoming a turf toe injury, which forced him to sit out the 58-0 loss at Michigan, and a back injury, which he played through, his season overall was good. He was named the team's MVP at Sunday afternoon's team banquet, and sure, a case can be made for safety Kim Royston, and others, the pick makes sense. He can make as many plays with his feet as any quarterback in the conference not named Denard Robinson. With durability a concern, playing in all 12 games next year needs to happen. Max Shortell, who is a better thrower than Gray, should've probably gotten a few more snaps in the Big Ten season. If he improves in spring practice, there's no reason to ensure he gets a couple series per game in 2012. Mankato West's Philip Nelson will be on campus in January for offseason conditioning and will take part in spring practice. He's the future, but it makes sense to red-shirt him in 2012.
RB: When recently posed with this question: Who is the team's leading rusher in 2012? Recruiting guru/GopherIllustrated.com's Matt O'Connell didn't hesitate to say junior college transfer James Gillum. We'll learn more about him in the spring. Returnees Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb will factor in as well. Devon Wright might be more of a special teams contributor. Someone needs to step up and do what senior Duane Bennett could so well: Block and be a threat as a receiver.
WR: Devin Crawford-Tufts showed flashes this year. He'll get 60 snaps per game next year. Malcolm Moulton needs some really good gloves and to spend a lot of time this offseason on catching the ball. He has proven he can get open. Marcus Jones is an ideal slot option, but will be recovering from an ACL injury. Rochester Community College's Isaac Fruechte sat out this year so he could have three years of eligibility with the Gophers. He'll be on campus in January for offseason conditioning. If Hopkins high school's Andre McDonald changes his college mind again (originally was a soft commitment to the Gophers, but now says he'll sign with Vanderbilt) he would have a good chance to play a lot as a true freshman.
O-line: There's little concern with this group.
Left tackle: Ed Olson Jr., who was hurt a lot of the season, and Marek Lenkiewicz have experience, and red-shirt freshman Foster Bush, who the coaches love, will factor in as well.
Left guard: Caleb Bak was great in the win vs. Illinois. Tom Olson was hurt, but looked the part in the snaps he got.
Center: Zach Mottla got much-needed experience this year, and St. Thomas Academy's Isaac Hayes is physically good enough to play right away in 2012. Normally a guard, Hayes has been told to be prepared to play center.
Right guard: Zac Epping played a lot this year. Josh Campion, who's another guy the coaches love, missed the entire season because of a concussion. If he's ok, he'll have a good chance to win a starting job.
Right tackle: Jimmy Gjere, the starter in the opening game, missed half of the season because of a concussion. Red-shirt freshman Kyle McAvoy will be worth monitoring. And with enough depth at left tackle, one of those guys could be asked to have some position flexibility.
Highly-touted recruit Jonah Pirsig is expected to red-shirt.
D-line: Always a worry, but a lot guys are back who played this year. That includes D.L. Wilhite, Michael Amaefula, Ben Perry, Ra'Shede Hageman, Kendall Gregory-McGhee, Eric Jacques, Matt Garin, and Cameron Botticelli. The Gophers jumped from nine sacks in 2010 to 19 sacks this year. That number is still far too low. Wilhite and Amaefula, because they're capable, will be asked to do more.
LB: Starters Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis are back. Brendan Beal, the Florida transfer who hasn't played competitively since 2008, will have a chance to be the starting middle linebacker. It's just hard to know where he'll be physically after two major knee injuries, and mentally, with such a long break between performances. Aaron Hill can dazzle, but always infuriate. It'll be interesting to see if a youngster emerges.
DB: If Troy Stoudermire gets a fifth-year of eligibility through a medical hardship waiver, that will help big-time. Brock Vereen is back, but he is not a lock to be a starter. Junior college transfer Jeremy Baltazar and/or Derrick Wells is more likely to start than Vereen. As for safety, both spots are giant question marks. They lose starters Kim Royston and Christyn Lewis. In limited duty, Cedric Thompson was serviceable, and will definitely have a good chance to earn one of the starting jobs. James Manuel is a physical monster, but clearly didn't impress the coaches this year. Why else would he have played so little? Kill may try to bring a junior college safety who will play right away.
Special teams: Walk-on Jordan Wettstein shouldn't be a walk-on any longer. His 51-yard field goal vs. Illinois was the Gophers' longest in four years. From the perfect execution of the onside kick to scoring a touchdown vs. Wisconsin, Wettstein is one of the best stories of the year. Punter Dan Orseske had a miserable year, which makes me wonder if there are mental hurdles he needs to overcome. He was very good throughout spring practice.
The 27-7 win vs. Illinois
It was the Gophers' most complete performance since a 37-3 shellacking of Florida Atlantic in 2008, and their first double-digit win since beating Purdue by 15 points in 2009.
It's amazing to think that the Gophers entered the game 11th or worse in the Big Ten in scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense, and total defense, and 108th nationally in 3rd-down defense.
With one minute to go in the first half, Illinois had minus-one yard of offense, while the Gophers had four sacks and seven tackles for a loss.
The Gophers held Illinois to 2-for-15 on third downs, didn't turn the ball over, and committed only two penalties.
It was a thing of beauty, especially Gray's running ability. He finished with 167 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries.
It's presumed that teams will always play hard, but it's not reality. To Kill's credit, his guys did in every game. Illinois' Ron Zook, who was fired on Sunday afternoon, had a team quit.