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1. Chicken thighs and margin for error
It's something every college football fan, especially a rube following a program down on it's recent luck, knows of and points to: The Year 3/4 Turn.
You see, years 3 and 4 of a head coach's tenure are generally when fruits of their labor arrive in the win/loss column. All the time recruiting, developing and changing a culture builds towards this moment, where coaches finally get the chance to field their vision for the program with players and schemes more fitting of their strengths versus the imbalances created by transitory seasons.
By year 3 or 4, coaches have most of the pieces in place. Then, and only then, do you see "The Turn."
That's from a lovely Daily Gopher piece about the Minnesota program heading into Jerry Kill's third year. Sometimes it takes a little longer than three years to peak, and sometimes, while you are dealing with the talent you inherited in the first year or two, you stumble across something useful and/or innovative, and things turn more quickly. But entering Year 3, the Kill culture has begun to take hold in Minnesota. Or, at least, it better have.
As the piece references, Jerry Kill has tended to, well, kill in his third year on the job, especially in his most recent positions at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. The man can coach. But the MAC and Gateway conferences have much more of an even playing field than the Big Ten. Here are the last five Minnesota coaches (not including Lou Holtz, who bailed after two seasons), their records in years 3-4, and their total records for the rest of their time in Minnesota:
- Tim Brewster (2007-10): 7-13 in years 3-4, done midway through fourth year
- Glen Mason (1997-06): 14-10 in years 3-4, 56-42 after first two years
- Jim Wacker (1992-96): 6-16 in years 3-4, 10-23 after first two years
- John Gutekunst (1986-91): 8-12-2 in years 3-4, 16-26-2 after first two years
- Joe Salem (1979-83): 9-13 in years 3-4, 10-23 after first two years
Minnesota is a hard job. It's not impossible, but it's difficult. The Big Ten money is good, but the money is good for every Big Ten school. The facilities have been upgraded, but most Big Ten facilities have been upgraded lately (and in today's arms race, they'll all be upgraded again soon). The natural recruiting draw is not as strong as that of many in the conference. If you can win at Wisconsin or Iowa, you can win at Minnesota, but the Gophers have either not done a good job of making hires or not done a good job of supporting the hires they have made. And aside from a solid run of success from Mason (seven bowls in eight seasons and, yes, Glen Mason Territory), the Minnesota program has been running in place, behind most of the rest of the league, for 50 years.
(Wow, that paragraph sounded more depressing than I intended.)
In preparing for this preview, I was also reminded of another piece I read recently. Here's The Ralphie Report talking about Colorado spending cuts. Naturally, I'd have probably loved the food analogy even if it didn't work. But this one works.
The best way to grill chicken is to toss some bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs on your grill with minimal seasoning. You pay little to no attention to them, wait until they get to temperature, toss them on the plate, and accept your friends' congratulations for cooking up the best chicken your guests have ever had. More delicate (worse) cooks buy up the boneless skinless chicked breasts, which have to be deeply marinated, carefully tended, and monitored closely lest they turn into inedible lumps of chicken based charcoal. For this analogy to work, we are the boneless, skinless breasts, and USC is the bone in, skin on thighs.
They literally have to do nothing to continue to be delicious, juicy, and desirable; just toss that shit on the grill, leave it alone, and you'll continue to be the most delicious, desirable program on the block. On the other hand, we're boneless skinless chicken breasts. Everything we do has to be managed carefully, spent on excessively, and even then we generally will receive lesser returns.
In the Big Ten, Minnesota is a chicken breast. And the grill operator has not been up to snuff. Still, the Gophers did reach a bowl in Kill's second season, albeit with a team that was not markedly better than any of Minnesota's last five. You can find momentum if you're spinning for it, but recruiting has in no way picked up, and though experience is solid throughout, the Gophers head into 2013 without 2012's best offensive player and probably three of its four or five best defensive players. Has culture taken hold enough to hold off disadvantages in athleticism, recent history, et cetera?
2. How low is too low (for recruiting rankings)?
There are plenty of examples of coaches taking two- and three-star talent and coaxing three- and four-star production out of it through the years. I'm not just talking about Boise State and TCU, either. Virginia Tech has been overachieving compared to its recruiting rankings for a couple of decades, as have teams like Wisconsin, Missouri, Texas Tech (under Mike Leach), and even Arkansas (under Bobby Petrino). You don't have much margin for error, but you can make bowls and win games with mediocre recruiting rankings if your talent identification and development skills are high enough.
That said ... damn, have Minnesota's recruiting rankings been low. The Gophers' two-year ranking of 58th ranks just ahead of Kansas, Illinois, and Iowa State and behind Northwestern, Houston, Washington State, Indiana, and other schools not known for recruiting resources or prowess.
Of course, Kansas State is 61st. So there's that. All Jerry Kill has to do is coach at a Bill Snyderian level, and Minnesota can win a lot of games, I guess. I'm in no way a "recruiting rankings are everything" guy, but there is a bar you have to clear, and I don't think Kill has cleared it yet.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 5-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 79|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|30-Aug||at UNLV||30-27||W||27.1 - 17.3||W|
|8-Sep||New Hampshire||44-7||W||25.8 - 19.3||W|
|15-Sep||Western Michigan||28-23||W||30.2 - 22.8||W|
|22-Sep||Syracuse||17-10||W||23.6 - 22.6||W|
|29-Sep||at Iowa||13-31||L||20.6 - 36.6||L|
|13-Oct||Northwestern||13-21||L||21.6 - 26.9||L|
|20-Oct||at Wisconsin||13-38||L||25.8 - 35.1||L|
|27-Oct||Purdue||44-28||W||38.6 - 28.2||W|
|3-Nov||Michigan||13-35||L||22.9 - 33.0||L|
|10-Nov||at Illinois||17-3||W||23.6 - 30.7||L|
|17-Nov||at Nebraska||14-38||L||14.6 - 24.4||L|
|24-Nov||Michigan State||10-26||L||3.3 - 36.5||L|
|28-Dec||vs. Texas Tech||31-34||L||28.0 - 31.3||L|
|Points Per Game||22.1||96||24.7||46|
|Adj. Points Per Game||23.5||103||28.1||63|
3. It actually started out pretty well
Minnesota no doubt took advantage of a cakey early schedule to reach six wins. In fact, when the bowl pairings were announced, I was incredibly confused by Minnesota's inclusion in the Meineke Car Care Bowl because in my head, the Gophers were 4-8.
On paper, however, despite tight wins over bad UNLV and Western Michigan teams, Minnesota did play reasonably well early on. The Gophers got some unlucky breaks against both the Rebels and Broncos but held on, and they did beat a Syracuse team that was about to improve rather significantly.
And then they played well just one to two more times the rest of the year.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 6 games): Minnesota 24.8, Opponent 24.3 (plus-0.5)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 7 games): Opponent 31.3, Minnesota 22.4 (minus-8.9)
The win over Purdue was decisive, and the bowl performance was perfectly solid, but aside from those two games, Minnesota's offense was far below average after mid-September (we'll get into why below), and the defense regressed by about a touchdown as well. When you've got a young team, and you're in Year 2 of a new regime, you'd like to see in-season growth, and thanks at least in part to injuries, Minnesota didn't have that.
|Q1 Rk||86||1st Down Rk||109|
|Q2 Rk||58||2nd Down Rk||51|
|Q3 Rk||85||3rd Down Rk||78|
4. Not particularly good at anything
There are 25 advanced rankings listed above; Minnesota's offense was between 58th and 91st in 22 of them, higher (barely) in one, and lower in two. The Gophers were average to poor across the board, though there are some pretty easy explanations for that. Quarterback MarQueis Gray couldn't stay healthy, the offense fell into a slump with Max Shortell, and against Wisconsin, Kill pulled the redshirt off of star freshman Philip Nelson to replace Shortell. At that point, you're basically sacrificing present-tense results for the future tense.
Adj. Points Per Game (with Gray): 26.3
Adj. Points Per Game (with Shortell): 22.0
Adj. Points Per Game (with Nelson): 22.4
Nelson was awesome versus Purdue (15-for-22, 246 yards, three touchdowns) and distinctly mediocre (46 percent completion rate) the rest of the way, but he was a freshman. That happens. Meanwhile, No. 1 receiver A.J. Barker caught five passes for 135 yards and two scores versus Purdue, then missed the rest of the season with an ankle injury and, well, other issues.
In theory, Minnesota wanted to be a run-first offense, first to maximize Gray's run-pass skill set, then to protect the younger, less effective quarterbacks. The main problem with that was that the Gophers were worse at running than passing. The line, shuffled often, was average, and the running backs were below average. That the line returns eight players with starting experience (100 career starts) is probably a good thing. But some new blood at running back wouldn't be bad at all. There was just no explosiveness whatsoever at the position.
Wow, this is a much more negative preview than I was intending. Let's just move on.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Philip Nelson||6'2, 215||So.||*** (5.7)||75||152||873||49.3%||8||8||7||4.4%||5.1|
|Mitch Leidner||6'4, 233||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Chris Streveler||6'2, 209||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
5. Nelson's job, for better or worse
Gray ran out of eligibility, and Shortell, seeing the writing on the wall, transferred to Jacksonville State. Unless Kill ends up pressing the reset button again with a freshman or redshirt freshman (which he has done in each of his two seasons), the quarterback job is Nelson's for the foreseeable future. Now he just needs to find some receivers.
|Donnell Kirkwood||RB||5'10, 223||Jr.||*** (5.6)||218||925||4.2||3.1||6||-12.5|
|Philip Nelson||QB||6'2, 215||So.||*** (5.7)||62||243||3.9||3.6||0||-5.5|
|Rodrick Williams, Jr.||RB||5'11, 235||So.||*** (5.5)||57||261||4.6||2.8||2||-2.2|
|James Gillum||RB||5'11, 214||Sr.||*** (5.5)||27||73||2.7||2.5||1||-5.7|
|K.J. Maye||WR-Z||5'10, 197||So.||*** (5.5)||17||57||3.4||1.1||0||-2.8|
|Marcus Jones||WR||5'8, 166||Jr.||** (5.4)||7||34||4.9||2.3||0||-0.4|
|Berkley Edwards||RB||5'9, 185||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Isaac Fruechte||WR-Z||6'3, 204||Jr.||** (5.4)||42||19||256||45.2%||6.1||13.7%||45.2%||6.4||35.4|
|Devin Crawford-Tufts||WR-X||6'2, 193||Jr.||*** (5.5)||30||16||189||53.3%||6.3||9.8%||56.7%||6.3||26.1|
|Derrick Engel||WR-H||6'2, 187||Sr.||** (5.2)||29||18||375||62.1%||12.9||9.4%||48.3%||13.0||51.8|
|K.J. Maye||WR-Z||5'10, 197||So.||*** (5.5)||18||11||49||61.1%||2.7||5.9%||50.0%||2.7||6.8|
|Drew Goodger||TE||6'5, 265||Jr.||*** (5.6)||16||13||115||81.3%||7.2||5.2%||75.0%||7.7||15.9|
|Marcus Jones||WR||5'8, 166||Jr.||** (5.4)||15||6||67||40.0%||4.5||4.9%||53.3%||4.1||9.3|
|Donnell Kirkwood||RB||5'10, 223||Jr.||*** (5.6)||9||7||23||77.8%||2.6||2.9%||22.2%||0.1||3.2|
|Jamel Harbison||WR-X||5'11, 199||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Eric Carter||WR||5'11, 177||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Drew Wolitarsky||WR||6'3, 215||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Nate Wozniak||TE||6'9, 255||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
6. More, please, Mr. Engel
Just know this about Highlight Yardage averages: Anything less than four yards per highlight opportunity is pretty bad. The only Minnesota runner to average better than even 3.6 was Gray, and he's gone. If freshman Berkley Edwards is ready (and semi-explosive), he could see plenty of opportunities this fall.
Meanwhile, just know this about per-target receiving averages: Anything less than 6.5 yards per target is pretty bad. The only returning Minnesota receivers to average better than 6.5 in 2012 were Barker (no longer on the team), little-used tight end Drew Goodger, and Derrick Engel. Of course, before the bowl game, Engel only had 14 catches for 267 yards for the season. His bowl performance (four catches, 108 yards) hinted at something impressive, and his full-season, per-target averages hinted at the same; heading into 2013, he is the only receiver who has even slightly proven himself a downfield threat. Junior Isaac Fruechte had nice per-catch averages, but they were ruined by an awful catch rate, and speedy return man K.J. Maye was used basically as a long-handoffs guy.
Somebody needs to get downfield if Minnesota has any chance of taking pressure off of both Nelson and the run game. Who will it be?
|Ed Olson||LT||6'7, 309||Sr.||*** (5.6)||28 career starts|
|Zac Epping||C||6'2, 321||Jr.||*** (5.5)||21 career starts|
|Caleb Bak||RG||6'3, 302||Jr.||NR||14 career starts|
|Josh Campion||RT||6'5, 326||So.||*** (5.7)||13 career starts|
|Tommy Olson||LG||6'4, 301||Jr.||*** (5.7)||11 career starts|
|Marek Lenkiewicz||LT||6'5, 289||Jr.||*** (5.6)||5 career starts|
|Jon Christenson||C||6'4, 306||So.||NR||5 career starts|
|Jimmy Gjere||RT||5 career starts|
|Zach Mottla||C||6'2, 277||Sr.||NR||3 career starts|
|Ernie Heifort||LG||6'5, 281||So.||NR|
|Joe Bjorklund||RG||6'5, 288||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Foster Bush||RT||6'5, 303||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Isaac Hayes||OL||6'2, 304||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Jonah Pirsig||OL||6'9, 308||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Q1 Rk||79||1st Down Rk||83|
|Q2 Rk||63||2nd Down Rk||47|
|Q3 Rk||29||3rd Down Rk||28|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Ra'Shede Hageman||NT||6'6, 311||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||27.5||3.9%||7.5||6||0||2||1||0|
|Roland Johnson||DT||6'1, 286||Sr.||*** (5.5)||10||17.5||2.5%||5||2||0||0||0||1|
|Michael Amaefula||DE||6'2, 244||Jr.||*** (5.5)||13||14.0||2.0%||5||2.5||0||0||0||2|
|Cam Botticelli||DT||6'5, 290||Jr.||** (5.3)||13||14.0||2.0%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Alex Keith||DE||6'3, 237||So.||** (5.4)||12||12.5||1.8%||3.5||1.5||0||1||0||1|
|Scott Ekpe||NT||6'4, 281||So.||** (5.4)||13||12.0||1.7%||4||0||0||0||0||1|
|Ben Perry||DE||6'5, 253||Jr.||** (5.3)||13||7.5||1.1%||1||1||0||2||1||0|
|Thieren Cockran||DE||6'6, 238||So.||** (5.4)||13||4.5||0.6%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Harold Legania||DT||6'4, 308||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Jordan Hinojosa||DT||6'3, 272||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Owen Salzwedel||DE||6'6, 235||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
7. Freak mode
The 6-6, 312-pound converted tight end vertical jumped 36 inches this offseason when the Gophers tested him. More impressively, the former basketball standout (he used to play AAU ball against first-rounder Royce White) says he can still do a 360 dunk even though he's well over three bills. "But," Hageman adds, "it doesn't look as pretty as when I was 250."
Tackle Ra'Shede Hageman was given a lofty No. 2 ranking in Bruce Feldman's offseason Freaks List, ahead of fellow freaks like Baylor's Lache Seastrunk, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, and Oregon's Colt Lyerla. That's impressive. He was one of the conference's better pass rushers from the tackle position, but as he acknowledged in the Feldman piece, he was prone to taking plays off from time to time. And even with a "freak" at tackle, Minnesota's run defense was quite poor.
If he can form a consistent disruptive presence up front, that would be tremendous because the front seven needs a little bit of help. D.L. Wilhite is the only departure up front, but he was basically the only decent pass rusher beyond Hageman. The depth up front could still be a strong suit, but it the line will have to thrive to offset a complete rebuild at the linebacker position.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Aaron Hill||SLB||6'2, 231||Sr.||NR||13||57.0||8.2%||4||1||2||2||3||0|
|James Manuel||WLB||6'2, 225||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||40.5||5.8%||3||0.5||0||1||0||1|
|Jephte Matilus||LB||6'1, 238||So.||*** (5.5)||4||0.5||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Damien Wilson||MLB||6'2, 254||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|De'Vondre Campbell||WLB||6'5, 225||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Nick Rallis||LB||5'11, 227||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|De'Niro Laster||LB||6'3, 220||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Rayfield Dixon||LB||6'3, 196||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
8. Linebackers don't matter (well, not exactly)
One of my favorite tidbits I learned while writing my book (I wrote a book! Buy my book in a couple of weeks!) came from "Dr. Bob" Stoll, one of college football's best handicappers. In essence, he pointed out that we tend to overreact to turnover at the linebacker position.
Linebackers are perhaps more interchangeable than their counterparts at other positions. That's a good thing for Minnesota in 2013, as the Gophers are starting over a bit. Seven Minnesota linebackers got a reasonable amount of playing time in 2012; two return. The ranks had already thinned out before Brendan Beal retired from football and Lamonte Edwards was dismissed (for being an idiot, basically). At this point, it will be interesting to see how the Gophers fill in a two-deep.
Still, some mandatory new blood could help. Minnesota's linebackers were not particularly adept at blitzing, pass coverage, or run support last year (but hey, other than that...), so even if turnover did mean a lot at linebacker, there still might not be much reason to think the Gopher LBs will be any worse this time around.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Derrick Wells||CB||6'0, 206||Jr.||** (5.4)||13||60.0||8.6%||2.5||0||2||10||0||1|
|Brock Vereen||S||6'0, 202||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||48.5||6.9%||1.5||0.5||2||9||0||0|
|Cedric Thompson||S||5'10, 211||Jr.||** (5.2)||13||33.5||4.8%||0||0||2||3||0||0|
|Jeremy Baltazar||CB||6'0, 197||Sr.||** (5.4)||13||12.0||1.7%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Antonio Johnson||DB||6'0, 207||So.||*** (5.6)||12||9.0||1.3%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Briean Boddy||CB||5'11, 186||Jr.||*** (5.5)||13||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Damarius Travis||S||6'2, 208||So.||*** (5.5)||13||6.0||0.9%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Martez Shabazz||CB||5'11, 172||Sr.||*** (5.5)||9||4.5||0.6%||0.5||0||1||3||0||0|
|Eric Murray||DB||6'0, 194||So.||** (5.4)||13||4.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Grayson Levine||S||5'11, 202||Jr.||*** (5.5)||7||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Steven Montgomery||DB||5'10, 210||So.||*** (5.6)||7||1.0||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
9. A hell of a pair of corners is gone
Minnesota's run defense was quite poor in 2012, but the Gophers could lean on a stout pass defense to bail them out of trouble from time to time. The pass rush was strong, as mentioned, and Minnesota had a terrific pair of corners in physical Troy Stoudermire and late-bloomer Michael Carter. Carter was seventh in the country with 19 passes defensed, and he almost single-handedly won the bowl game with two terrific, late interceptions.
Now they're both gone. Everybody else returns, including a couple of solid disruptors in corner Derrick Wells and safety Brock Vereen. If Minnesota can maintain some sort of pass rush with Hageman and company, the secondary should still be able to lock down a top-50 passing defense. Carter in particular was impressive last year, but the question marks for Minnesota still come in run defense and linebacker depth.
|Christian Eldred||6'3, 185||Jr.||67||38.1||5||22||22||65.7%|
|Chris Hawthorne||6'6, 200||Sr.||1||65||0||0.0%|
|K.J. Maye||KR||5'10, 197||So.||8||22.2||0|
|Special Teams F/+||88|
|Field Goal Pct||94|
|Kick Returns Avg||81|
|Punt Returns Avg||82|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|7-Sep||at New Mexico State||123|
|21-Sep||San Jose State||68|
|30-Nov||at Michigan State||18|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||88|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||58|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-2 / -1.7|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||16 (10, 6)|
10. Better start 5-0
Minnesota plays five teams projected worse than 60th in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013. The Gophers play four of them in the first four weeks of the season, three at home. Throw in a home game versus Iowa, and you've got an incredibly navigable September. Minnesota better take full advantage of that, however, because there might not be a sure win on the schedule after that. The remaining home games are against top-25 teams, and the two remaining teams with the worst projected rankings (Northwestern and Indiana) host the Gophers.
The third- and fourth-year window really is the time when culture takes hold for a coach. Jerry Kill was wonderfully successful in his head coaching career before heading to Minnesota, and he could certainly reach Glen Mason levels at some point in the coming years.
But as hard as I try, it is difficult for me to be optimistic about this squad. Philip Nelson is still developing, and he has no obvious skill position stars to help him out. His line should be decent, but that only matters so much if the ball-carriers are lacking. And on defense, a star up front might only be able to offset a linebacking unit bereft of known play-making ability, and the secondary has to replace its best ball hawk.
This feels like a team built to tread water, and while the Gophers could certainly eke out another six-win season in 2013, it is difficult to see how the ceiling is much higher than that just yet. Surprise me, Gophers.