In his first year as Saginaw Valley State's head coach, Jerry Kill led the Cardinals to a 6-4 record; three years later, they were 9-2.
In Year One at Southern Illinois, Kill's Salukis went 1-10. Two years later, they went 10-2 and kicked off a five-year span that saw them win 50 games.
In his first year at Northern Illinois, Kill went 6-7 with the Huskies. Two years later, they were 10-3.
In other words, Jerry Kill's building process typically takes a while, but it almost always succeeds. (He went only 5-6 and 6-5 at Emporia State before jumping to SIU, so we don't know what Year Three was like there.) Kill has methodically climbed the coaching ladder, and he has eventually thrived at almost every spot. It is probably going to take him until at least Year Three at Minnesota, but with this track record it would be silly to bet against him in the long-term.
The question, of course, is what it means to thrive at Minnesota in 2012. Gopher fans got tired of seven and eight win seasons under Glen Mason, and in aiming for something more, hired Tim Brewster and watched him go 15-31 over three and a half seasons.
Minnesota has not finished ranked in back-to-back seasons since Murray Warmath's heyday in the early-1960s (No. 1 in 1960, No. 2 in 1961, No. 10 in 1962). You can find national title banners hanging in Minneapolis -- the Gophers were ridiculously good under Bernie Bierman in the 1930s and early-1940s -- but only one title came after World War II. In the Legends Division, which features the likes of steady Iowa and Nebraska, surging Michigan State and potentially resurgent Michigan, how far can Kill take the Gophers if he does indeed put together a quality product?
I'm not going to pretend I know a lot of the ins and outs about his first years at other jobs -- it certainly doesn't sound like his inaugural autumn in Carbondale was very fun -- but I'm going to guess Kill's tenure at Minnesota began with more bumps and struggles than at any other stop in his career. Never mind the losses to New Mexico State and North Dakota State. Never mind the 58-0 destruction at Michigan. Never mind the 3-9 finish. Kill's own health was as notable as anything that happened on the field. He suffered a seizure and collapsed on the sideline late in the New Mexico State game, then suffered another one after the North Dakota State game. He is by all accounts (including his own) doing quite a bit better now, and as we will see, his team is too.
So now, four years after Minnesota replaced Mason with Tim Brewster, they have replaced Brewster with former Northern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill. A likable man with a violent name, Kill was coaching at Webb City High School in Missouri 20 years ago. Since then, he won big at Saginaw Valley State and rebuilt both Southern and Northern Illinois, and now he moves up to the Big Ten. He comes from a working-class background, sports a working-class 127-73 career record and fought off kidney cancer, in working-class fashion, no doubt. He is an "up by your bootstraps" coach with a story that is easy to admire. Now ... can he win in Minneapolis? […]
Kill inherits a team that has recruited relatively well through the years (at least compared to their win totals), that returns a lot of starters (particularly on defense), and that should benefit from a regression to the mean in the YPP category. If MarQueis Gray takes to the new offensive system, then the Gophers could make some interesting things happen. If Gray thrives and Minnesota discovers a pass rush ... well ... actually, let's stick to realistic if's. There probably isn't much hope for the defensive ends.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: the key for Minnesota's 2011 season will be ... a fast start! (This has been the key for just about every team previewed in the last two weeks.) After a trip to USC, Minnesota has the opportunity to plow through New Mexico State, Miami (Ohio) and North Dakota State before beginning conference play. "Opportunity" doesn't always result in wins, of course, but these are the easiest games on the schedule, and any chance of six wins goes out the window if Minny starts less than 3-1.
To put it bluntly, Minnesota very much did not start 3-1. After a respectable showing in the opener -- a surprisingly close 19-17 loss to USC that saw backup quarterback Max Shortell engineer a late comeback -- the Gophers dropped the aforementioned games to New Mexico State and eventual champion North Dakota State, and after Kill returned from his second seizure, got absolutely destroyed by Michigan.
But as the schedule got tougher, Minnesota pretty clearly got better down the stretch. It only somewhat showed in the win column (home upsets of Iowa and Illinois got them to three wins), but it was there.
First Seven Games: Opponent 30.7 Adj. Points per game, Minnesota 24.0 (minus-6.7)
Last Five Games: Minnesota 27.3 Adj. Points per game, Opponent 27.2 (plus-0.1)
The Gophers went from a full touchdown below average to almost perfectly average over their final five games -- both the offense and defense improved by about half a touchdown -- and while "average" will only be acceptable for so long, it did represent clear, definable improvement. So they have that going for them as they enter the 2012 season. What they don't necessarily have yet is the depth necessary to be much more than average.
It was almost a worst-case scenario for the Minnesota offense out of the gates. Quarterback and former marquee recruit MarQueis Gray suffered cramps against USC after getting sacked four times in 16 pass attempts and was relieved by backup Max Shortell in the third quarter. Shortell proceeded to engineer two touchdown drives, and Jerry Kill had a quarterback controversy on his hands before the end of his first game. Kill stuck with Gray, however, and it eventually began to pay off.
Entering his senior season, Gray probably is what he is as a passer. His passing skills have always held him back -- they are what got him moved to wide receiver in Brewster's final season in 2010 -- but his legs were the Minnesota offense's single best weapon in 2011, and beyond that, including sacks, he did still average more yards per pass attempt than Shortell (6.2 to 5.1). Cramps aside, he proved durable in 2011; his big frame (6'4, 240 pounds) allows him to dish almost as much punishment as he receives, and he was able to hand in about 15 non-sack carries per game.
During Minnesota's five-game hot(ish) streak at the end of the season, Gray averaged 19.4 non-sack carries for 108.4 yards per game, and he rushed for 326 yards in the final two contests. Jerry Kill unearthed Chandler Harnish at Northern Illinois -- he certainly knows what to do with efficient, run-first quarterbacks.
If Gray's legs were Strength No. 1 for the Minnesota offense in 2011, the line was No. 2. This makes sense, as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover is a line guy, good enough at his job that he has been Kill's offensive line coach since 1999 at Emporia State and his offensive coordinator since 2001 at Southern Illinois. The Gophers ranked 39th in Adj. Line Yards, but they must replace three starters who combined for 70 career starts. Thanks to injuries and general shuffling, six returning players do have starting experience, but they have combined for just 40 career starts. The tackle position should be well-manned, with 6'7 junior Ed Olson (19 career starts) lining up on the left side and 6'7 four-star sophomore Jimmy Gjere (five career starts) on the right. The interior line is a bit less certain. But considering Gray's strengths and weaknesses, the blocking will need to be strong on standard downs because Gray isn't really a passing downs quarterback.
The skill position lineup is a mixed bag. Last year's leading running back and two of the top three most frequently targeted wideouts are gone, but only one might be missed. Duane Bennett rushed for 652 yards last season (3.9 per carry), but his minus-15.5 Adj. POE (which means that he was more than two touchdowns worse than the average FBS back given his carries, opponents and blocking) suggests he was quite replaceable. Sophomores Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb (combined: 286 yards, minus-5.1 Adj. POE) were not much better, but at least they were freshmen. These two and junior college transfer James Gillum should be quite capable of either replicating or bettering Bennett's production.
At receiver, Da'Jon McKnight could be missed. He was targeted by an incredible 39 percent of Minnesota's passes in 2011, the third-highest Target Rate in the country (behind only Illinois' A.J. Jenkins and Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu), and his per-target average of 8.1 yards was quite a bit higher than most Minnesota receivers. In his place, a committee of players like junior Malcolm Moulton, senior Brandon Green (a former four-star recruit) and sophomores Marcus Jones and Devin Crawford-Tufts (plus, potentially, newcomers like junior college transfer Isaac Fruechte and three-star freshmen Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison) will need to raise their collective game.
Minnesota used receivers in one of two ways last year; you had your possession guys (Green and departed Collin McGarry combined for a 74 percent catch rate and 9.9 yards per catch), and you had your downfield guys (McKnight, Moulton, Jones and Crawford-Tufts combined for a 51 percent catch rate and 15.0 yards per catch). A little more variety might be a good thing, and an improvement in Moulton's 45 percent catch rate might be a great thing.
We'll start with good news here: Minnesota's defense absolutely improved as the season progressed. And unlike with previous seasons, there is actually some continuity on the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has a good idea of what he is working with on a defense that was decent up front, average against the pass, and pretty porous against the run.
Now, the bad news: even thought the Gophers' defense improved, it was still only average at the end of the season, and now they must replace their top two defensive tackles, their middle linebacker and three of four starters in the secondary.
We'll start in the back, where the Minnesota secondary produced a Passing S&P+ ranking of 63rd despite a below average pass rush. Corner-turned-safety Brock Vereen returns, but safeties Kim Royston and Christyn Lewis are gone, as is corner Kyle Henderson. But a 2011 injury could help immensely in 2012. Corner (and star kick returner) Troy Stoudermire returns after missing seven games with a broken forearm and receiving an extra year of eligibility. Plus, former star recruit Michael Carter is saying and doing the right things after dealing with what appear to have been some general maturity and commitment issues. If these two are playing up to their potential, then a relative strength from last year could be stronger this fall, especially if bolstered by a handful of junior college transfers.
And let's just say that strong pass coverage might come in handy given the current state of the pass rush. Every defensive end from last year's rotation returns, but only one (D.L. Wilhite) managed more than 1.5 sacks last year. The Gophers ranked 77th in Adj. Sack Rate, in part because they blitzed well on passing downs, but they couldn't generate much pressure without extra help. And now the ends must compensate for some costly turnover at tackle -- anchor Anthony Jacobs (6.0 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles) is gone. Junior Ra'Shede Hageman has potential, and perhaps so does junior college transfer Roland Johnson, but the Gophers might struggle to match last year's No. 52 ranking in Adj. Line Yards.
If nothing else, the linebacker position has potential, even if it didn't show enough of it last year. Senior outside linebacker Keanon Cooper, a former four-star recruit, put together 6.0 tackles for loss, second most on the team behind middle linebacker Gary Tinsley*. Four-star sophomore Lamonte Edwards saw limited action last year, and four-star junior Brendan Beal could be an interesting prospect if he could ever see the field. At either Florida (where he originally signed) or Minnesota (where he transferred), he has yet to see the field because of injuries.
* It should very much be mentioned that middle linebacker Gary Tinsley, who wrapped up his eligibility last year, passed away in April. It would have been poor form to drop that into the middle of a paragraph, so it gets its own here. One never knows how a team will respond to tragedy like this -- it could be a rallying point or a constant tormentor -- but when death is involved, how a team plays is beside the point. Just know that it will certainly be weighing on Minnesota players this offseason, one way or another.
As with last year, the schedule is far from devastating. Last year, it didn't matter -- the Gophers still went 1-3 in non-conference play. This year, for all we know, it could matter a great deal. After a season-opening trip to UNLV, Minnesota plays host to New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse in non-conference play. If they take care of business, the Gophers could be 4-0 heading into conference play, even if they are only somewhat improved. Home games against Northwestern and Purdue, then, would give them a chance to sneak up to 6-6 and minor bowl eligibility. This seems to be where Minnesota fans are setting the bar, but considering there's no margin for error there, I'll say they could go 5-7 and still call it a reasonable success. Two-game improvement is, after all, two-game improvement.
I still think Minnesota is a year away from true growth, and I'm leaning a lot on Jerry Kill's track record when I say that. Kill did not exactly knock anybody's socks off in recruiting this past offseason, and his starting quarterback is a senior -- that's not really a good recipe for success a year from now. But with little margin for error on the schedule, I don't quite see the team getting to six wins this time around.
Still, the running game should be decent (even if it requires Marqueis Gray to take a lot of hits), the secondary should withstand some losses, and the Gophers should improve at least 10-15 spots in the F/+ rankings and a couple of games in the win column. That's something. And aside from the quarterback and linebacker positions, the Gophers should return a good amount of experience in most units in 2013. So I'll just buy stock in the Gophers for 2013 and somewhat write them off again for one more fall.