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Has Minnesota improved enough to win the Big Ten West?

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Jerry Kill's Golden Gophers have gotten better three years in a row. Is one more jump enough to win the division?

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. How high's the ceiling?

When a coach like Glen Mason raises the bar for a program but then stops raising it, or regularly clearing the bar he set, fans get impatient. And impatience can bring iffy decision-making.

Mason is Minnesota's most successful coach of the last five decades. In 1999 and 2003, he led the Gophers to their first two ranked finishes since 1962. In 2003, they won 10 games for the first time in 98 years. They went to seven bowls in eight seasons between 1999 and 2006 after going to just five ever.

Mason finished with a winning record more times in 10 seasons (five) than the last four Minnesota coaches had combined.

For all his accomplishments, his growth stalled out. Minnesota went 7-5, 7-5, and 6-7 after his 2003 breakthrough, and while the 2005 squad ranked a healthy 17th in F/+ (easily the Gophers' best mark of the last 10 years), they lost five games, and after going 6-6 in 2006, they blew a huge bowl lead against Texas Tech, and that was that.

You can understand frustration when growth slows, but Minnesota was bowling and still recruiting to a clear identity. When Mason left, that changed.

2014 brought a bittersweet milestone for the Golden Gophers. For the first time since 2006, Minnesota played at a level that exceeded the Big Ten average. In replacing the aging Mason with his opposite -- energetic up-and-comer Tim Brewster -- Minnesota had hit the reset button on its program; after winning 38 games from 2002-06, the Gophers won 20 from 2007-11.

Hiring a coach is terrifying. Probably 75 percent of hires make sense on paper, but in a zero-sum universe, only 50 percent are going to succeed, tops. And if you make a confusing hire, as Minnesota did with Brewster (no head coach or coordinator experience and hadn't coached in college in six years), your odds are even lower. Unless you know your current coach can't meet the goals you have set, firing a pretty good coach in no way guarantees you'll find a better one.

Luckily, Minnesota seems to have done fine with its next hire. Following four years of Brewster, the Gophers hired Jerry Kill, and while growth has been slow, it has been steady.

The plaudits for Kill have been overstated -- Minnesota did finish 8-5 and 37th in F/+ last year, not 11-2 and 15th -- but he's still building. The next time he doesn't improve his team from one year to another will be the first time since 2011.

So how long can Kill keep the growth going? He recruits at a top-60 level and put a top-40 team on the field, but what's the ceiling? Can a decent-not-great offense survive the loss of its best running back and top receiving threat? Can an experienced defense pick up the slack?

Minnesota is being treated as a contender in the Big Ten West, and while that's because of the lack of an elite team (Wisconsin is the most highly projected but barely squeezes into the top 25), it's also because we're beginning to expect more of Minnesota. Will we be disappointed?

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 37
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
28-Aug Eastern Illinois NR 42-20 W 74% 14.7 99%
6-Sep Middle Tennessee 87 35-24 W 92% 32.1 99%
13-Sep at TCU 6 7-30 L 21% -18.7 0%
20-Sep San Jose State 116 24-7 W 90% 30.4 100%
27-Sep at Michigan 54 30-14 W 80% 19.5 90%
11-Oct Northwestern 71 24-17 W 59% 5.5 65%
18-Oct Purdue 84 39-38 W 46% -2.2 52%
25-Oct at Illinois 78 24-28 L 46% -2.2 47%
8-Nov Iowa 63 51-14 W 99% 53.0 100%
15-Nov Ohio State 1 24-31 L 51% 0.8 5%
22-Nov at Nebraska 30 28-24 W 86% 25.4 85%
29-Nov at Wisconsin 25 24-34 L 51% 0.8 11%
1-Jan vs. Missouri 20 17-33 L 40% -6.0 12%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 32.1 44 23.0 31
Points Per Game 28.4 69 24.2 34

2. Gotta maintain

The 80th percentile translates to a top-25 level of play, and Minnesota cleared that bar on five occasions in 2014. But after doing so in three of the first five games, the Gophers did so twice in the final eight. They played only one poor game (at TCU), but despite a nearly perfect performance against Iowa, the level faded from September to January.

  • Average Percentile Performance (first 5 games): 71% (record: 4-1)
  • Average Percentile Performance (last 8 games): 60% (record: 4-4)

The Gophers' offense was what it was -- decent, efficient, and in need of more big plays -- through most of the season. It improved a hair as the season elapsed. But the defense regressed considerably.

  • Yards Per Play (first 5 games): Gophers 5.3, Opponents 4.6 (plus-0.7)
  • Yards Per Play (last 8 games): Opponents 6.0, Gophers 5.5 (minus-0.5)

If your opponents are gaining .5 more yards per play than you over eight games, you're pretty lucky going 4-4, as Minnesota did. Turnovers helped, and the Gophers were masters of field position, which helped turn the tide in close wins over Northwestern, Purdue, and Nebraska and a competitive loss to Ohio State.

Still, that's a no-margin-for-error approach, and the defensive fade is alarming, considering the offense could regress in 2015.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.83 76 IsoPPP+ 106.6 51
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 42.4% 57 Succ. Rt. + 108.1 38
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 27.6 20 Def. FP+ 107.1 7
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.4 69 Redzone S&P+ 115.9 27
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 21.5 ACTUAL 20 -1.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 106 44 35 51
RUSHING 30 38 46 34
PASSING 121 57 40 59
Standard Downs 45 47 44
Passing Downs 53 32 80
Q1 Rk 61 1st Down Rk 49
Q2 Rk 29 2nd Down Rk 81
Q3 Rk 17 3rd Down Rk 30
Q4 Rk 83

3. Running as much as any non-option offense

Identity is of immense importance in college football. Some teams are able to get by on pure talent; most aren't.

While the Gophers had a low ceiling, averaging more than 6 yards per play just once, they knew exactly how they could win. Their offense was as intended to complement their defense as it was to score points. Minnesota leaned heavily on the run, played at a plodding pace that kept its defense fresh, and relied on the excellent leg of punter Peter Mortell to create field position.

Minnesota ran 77 percent of the time on standard downs; only Army, Navy, New Mexico, Air Force, Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech, and (by decimal points) Boston College ran more. On that list, everybody but BC runs an option offense, and BC did in a way, too.

While quarterback Mitch Leidner attempted about nine carries per game, Minnesota's standard downs offense was basically David Cobb right and David Cobb left. Cobb rushed 24 times per game; only Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Boise State's Jay Ajayi took more handoffs. Cobb's now a Tennessee Titan, and returning backs only combined for 53 carries last year.

It will be interesting to see if Leidner is asked to handle a bit more, either as a run threat or a passer. Minnesota will still run and run, but the percentages could drop.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Mitch Leidner 6'4, 236 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8286 122 237 1798 11 8 51.5% 19 7.4% 6.4
Chris Streveler 6'2, 227 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8119 4 11 37 1 1 36.4% 0 0.0% 3.4
Jacques Perra 6'3, 221 RSFr. NR NR
Demry Croft 6'5, 198 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8532

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
David Cobb RB
315 1629 13 5.2 4.6 39.4% 6 5
Mitch Leidner QB 6'4, 236 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8286 107 600 10 5.6 4.4 43.9% 10 5
Chris Streveler QB 6'2, 227 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8119 36 235 1 6.5 5.1 50.0% 1 0
Berkley Edwards RB 5'9, 192 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8600 30 140 2 4.7 6.5 30.0% 0 0
Donnell Kirkwood RB
29 89 2 3.1 4.1 17.2% 0 0
Rodrick Williams Jr. RB 5'11, 229 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8413 23 114 3 5.0 4.1 43.5% 0 0
KJ Maye WR 5'10, 199 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8031 22 150 1 6.8 4.1 59.1% 0 0
Donovahn Jones WR
4 22 0 5.5 3.8 50.0% 0 0
Jeff Jones RB 6'0, 207 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9689
Rodney Smith RB 5'11, 202 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8352
Shannon Brooks RB 6'0, 205 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8364
Jonathan Femi-Cole RB 6'0, 218 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8272
James Johannesson RB 6'1, 221 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8159







4. Plenty of carries, plenty of bodies

Berkley Edwards provided a nice change of pace, showing explosiveness, if minimal efficiency, in his two to three carries per game. Rodrick Williams Jr. was efficient but not very explosive.

Williams has stopped eating Chicken McNuggets and has trimmed, and he'll apparently get the first crack at replacing Cobb. But between Edwards, redshirt freshmen Jeff Jones and Rodney Smith, and three incoming freshmen, there are bodies available. Will Kill and coordinator Matt Limegrover attempt to lean on Williams or share the love more?

There are more questions in the receiving corps. All-world tight end (and hurdler) Maxx Williams went pro early, Donovahn Jones was dismissed, and No. 3 receiver Isaac Fruechte graduated. That means KJ Maye and Drew Wolitarsky are the only returnees who caught more than six passes.

Wolitarsky could be the key. He experienced a breakout in 2013 -- nine catches, 172 yards in his last four games -- but battled injuries last fall and caught only 10 passes. If he lives up to the potential Gopher fans thought he had, the pass should be fine. Williams was a unique threat, but with effective running and play-action, there should be open receivers.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Maxx Williams TE-H
64 36 569 56.3% 26.6% 53.1% 8.9 122 9.0 87.5
KJ Maye WR-Z 5'10, 199 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8031 38 16 298 42.1% 15.8% 39.5% 7.8 85 7.5 45.8
Isaac Fruechte WR-X
38 18 292 47.4% 15.8% 55.3% 7.7 60 7.7 44.9
Donovahn Jones WR-X
26 11 253 42.3% 10.8% 50.0% 9.7 107 10.2 38.9
David Cobb RB
21 16 162 76.2% 8.7% 47.6% 7.7 -26 7.7 24.9
Drew Wolitarsky WR 6'3, 217 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8373 19 10 106 52.6% 7.9% 52.6% 5.6 -20 5.4 16.3
Lincoln Plsek TE-Y 6'4, 266 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8097 8 5 53 62.5% 3.3% 62.5% 6.6 -8 6.8 8.1
Miles Thomas FB 5'11, 250 Sr. NR 0.7000 8 6 41 75.0% 3.3% 87.5% 5.1 -30 7.1 6.3
Berkley Edwards RB 5'9, 192 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8600 6 3 24 50.0% 2.5% 50.0% 4.0 -14 4.5 3.7
Drew Goodger TE-Y
6 1 9 16.7% 2.5% 66.7% 1.5 -10 1.3 1.4
Brandon Lingen TE-H 6'5, 245 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7984 2 2 18 100.0% 0.8% 100.0% 9.0 -5 NR 2.8
Eric Carter WR-X 5'11, 189 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8146 1 1 4 100.0% 0.4% 0.0% 4.0 -7 NR 0.6
Nate Wozniak TE-Y 6'10, 267 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8432
Duke Anyanwu TE 6'4, 239 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7875
Melvin Holland Jr. WR 6'3, 196 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8601
Isaiah Gentry WR 6'4, 205 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8274
Jerry Gibson TE 6'3, 227 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8151
Hunter Register WR 6'5, 200 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8386

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 115 3.28 3.44 39.9% 66.7% 17.4% 78.7 4.1% 12.6%
Rank 19 26 48 56 66 38 104 51 121
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Zac Epping LG 47 2014 2nd All-Big Ten
Josh Campion RG 6'5, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.7907 39
Tommy Olson C
28
Jon Christenson RG 6'4, 296 Sr. NR NR 14
Ben Lauer LT 6'7, 314 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7544 10
Foster Bush RT 6'5, 319 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8104 9
Joe Bjorklund LG 6'5, 296 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8378 8
Jonah Pirsig RT 6'9, 324 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8724 7
Brian Bobek C 6'2, 297 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9106 0
Isaac Hayes LG 6'2, 310 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8714 0
Connor Mayes C 6'5, 320 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8726 0
Alex Mayes LT 6'6, 310 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8391 0
Chad Fahning LT 6'6, 293 So. 2 stars (5.4) NR 0
Tyler Moore OL 6'4, 311 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8539
Quinn Oseland OL 6'6, 301 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8553
Bronson Dovich OL 6'5, 295 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8392
Ted Stieber OL 6'6, 290 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8367
Nick Connelly OL 6'7, 277 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8310

5. A strong line does some shuffling

Matt Limegrover is a steady coordinator. You know what Minnesota wants to do, but it's still hard to stop if you don't have the manpower. Kill and company recruit strong running backs, and the offensive line is stronger than recruiting rankings would suggest.

Thank Limegrover for that. He has become known as one of the country's best OL coaches, and despite the loss of all-conference guard Zac Epping and another two-year starter (center Tommy Olson), which has forced a few position changes as the Gophers look for the right starting mix, it's hard to worry too much about the line.

The Gophers will keep defenders out of the backfield on run plays, and while sack rates will probably continue to be an issue, that has as much to do with the fight-or-flight instincts of Mitch Leidner as anything else. The line was a strength and will continue to be one.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.81 39 IsoPPP+ 109.3 45
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 40.1% 52 Succ. Rt. + 106.3 41
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 33.0 15 Off. FP+ 105.0 20
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.3 61 Redzone S&P+ 98.8 67
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 28.5 ACTUAL 30.0 +1.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 40 44 40 45
RUSHING 76 37 39 46
PASSING 18 53 49 49
Standard Downs 39 40 32
Passing Downs 61 53 64
Q1 Rk 45 1st Down Rk 39
Q2 Rk 71 2nd Down Rk 16
Q3 Rk 19 3rd Down Rk 49
Q4 Rk 67

6. Coaches vs. stats

It's fun to pair up opponents' run-pass rates and a defense's S&P+ rankings. If you see that an opponent ran or passed more than the national average, you can usually scroll down to see that the defense was far worse in defending one or the other. It usually matches up.

It didn't for Minnesota. Opponents ran slightly more than the national average on standard down and far more on passing downs, but Minnesota graded out better against the run (37th in Rushing S&P+) than the pass (53rd in Passing S&P+).

In a way, Minnesota's reputation might have proceeded it. The Gophers have had a strong pass defense for a few years now, but even with Ra'Shede Hageman at nose in 2013, they ranked 79th in Rushing S&P+. But without both starting tackles (Hageman and Roland Johnson) and injured backup Scott Ekpe, and even with squatty true freshman Steven Richardson (and a few other freshmen) playing major minutes, Minnesota's run defense improved immensely.

Meanwhile, without any key injuries, the pass D sprang a few leaks.

  • Pass Defense (first 5 games): 56% completion rate, 9.8 yards per completion, 3.6% INT rate
  • Pass Defense (last 8 games): 60% completion rate, 12.2 yards per completion, 3.8% INT rate

Regression in pass defense led to overall regression.

In 2015, the defense returns enough pieces to get you excited: six of last year's top eight linemen (plus Ekpe), three of the top four linebackers, and five of the top seven defensive backs. Key pieces like safety Cedric Thompson, linebacker Damien Wilson, and tackle Cameron Botticelli are gone, but they were far from irreplaceable. There's reason to think the defense can improve, but it will be interesting to see how opponents plan to attack.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 112 2.75 2.75 38.0% 65.0% 22.5% 89 4.8% 6.2%
Rank 27 37 25 53 51 27 87 60 84
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Cameron Botticelli DT
13 23.0 3.4% 9.0 3.0 0 0 0 0
Theiren Cockran DE 6'6, 257 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7593 13 18.0 2.6% 7.0 4.0 0 2 1 0
Michael Amaefula DE
12 18.0 2.6% 4.5 3.5 0 0 1 1
Steven Richardson NT 6'0, 291 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8142 13 16.0 2.3% 6.0 2.0 0 0 1 0
Scott Ekpe (2013) NT 6'4, 293 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8104 13 13.5 1.9% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Robert Ndondo-Lay NT 6'5, 266 Sr. NR NR 13 13.0 1.9% 2.5 2.5 0 0 0 0
Hank Ekpe DE 6'5, 244 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8167 13 11.5 1.7% 3.0 1.5 0 0 0 0
Alex Keith DE 6'3, 253 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7944 9 9.0 1.3% 2.5 1.5 0 0 1 0
Gaelin Elmore DE 6'6, 262 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8568 13 9.0 1.3% 2.0 1.0 0 1 1 0
Andrew Stelter DT 6'4, 269 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8473 12 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Gary Moore DT 6'4, 287 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7994 4 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Julien Kafo DE 6'4, 255 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7882
Yoshoub Timms DL 6'2, 293 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000
Mose Hall DT 6'4, 255 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8004







Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Damien Wilson LB
13 91.0 13.3% 10.5 4.0 1 3 1 0
De'Vondre Campbell LB 6'5, 241 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8553 13 62.0 9.1% 6.5 2.5 1 1 0 0
Jack Lynn LB 6'3, 240 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8264 13 45.0 6.6% 7.0 1.0 0 2 3 0
Jonathan Celestin LB 6'1, 222 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7982 11 15.0 2.2% 3.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
De'Niro Laster LB 6'4, 226 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8487 9 5.5 0.8% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Everett Williams LB 6'1, 235 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8079 8 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Nick Rallis LB 5'11, 233 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8342 2 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Ray Dixon LB 6'3, 228 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8287
Chris Wipson LB 6'2, 219 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8073
Cody Poock LB 6'2, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8069
Julian Huff LB 5'11, 223 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8035
Jaylen Waters LB 6'3, 228 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8364








7. Run defense should still be a strength

Botticelli was a solid play-maker at defensive tackle, but with the return of Richardson, lanky senior Robert Ndondo-Lay, and a host of sophomores, it appears the middle of the line should still hold up. (And because of youth, it might hold up for a few more years.)

Linebackers De'Vondre Campbell, Jack Lynn, and Jonathan Celestin combined for 16.5 tackles for loss last year, mostly against the run, and Theiren Cockran is a strong end. Graduation skimmed off a few decent names, but more return.

However, the front seven was likely to blame for the regression in pass defense. Minnesota again ranked poorly in Adj. Sack Rate, and Cockran's numbers regressed, perhaps because of the loss of Hageman. A little more juice up front would take pressure off of the secondary, but unless that comes from spring star Hank Ekpe, I'm not sure it will happen.

Ekpe might be the most important player on this year's defense. Coordinator Tracy Claeys doesn't want to overcommit his linebackers to rushing the passer -- LBs had more passes defensed (nine) than sacks (eight) last year -- so a surge from the line is key.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Cedric Thompson S
13 67.0 9.8% 3.5 0 2 2 2 0
Eric Murray CB 6'0, 196 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7793 13 58.0 8.5% 2 0 1 7 0 0
Damarius Travis S 6'2, 215 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7000 13 49.0 7.2% 3.5 0 2 5 1 1
Briean Boddy-Calhoun CB 5'11, 188 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7867 13 45.0 6.6% 2 0 5 9 2 1
Derrick Wells CB
13 33.0 4.8% 0 0 1 3 0 0
Antonio Johnson S 6'0, 211 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8274 12 27.5 4.0% 2.5 0 1 3 0 0
Jalen Myrick CB 5'10, 208 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8151 13 19.0 2.8% 1 0 1 7 1 0
Grayson Levine S
13 6.5 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Craig James CB 5'10, 189 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8407 13 6.0 0.9% 0 0 0 3 0 0
Daletavious McGhee S 6'1, 210 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7983 10 5.0 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Marcus Jones CB
10 3.5 0.5% 1 0 0 1 0 0
Ace Rogers DB 6'1, 207 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8535
Jacob Huff DB 5'10, 205 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8156
Dior Johnson DB 6'2, 195 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8574
Ray Buford DB 6'2, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8463
Antonio Shenault DB 5'11, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8285








8. Another active secondary

Despite iffy sack rates, Minnesota's Havoc Rate of 18.3 percent ranked a healthy 23rd in the country. An active run defense helped, but so did a handsy secondary that featured eight players with at least three passes defensed and five with at least two tackles for loss.

The Gophers were deep, aggressive, and mostly effective (less so late in the year), and the depth should pay off. Two members of the havoc club are gone (safety Cedric Thompson, corner Derrick Wells), but six other return, including one of the most active trios of corners in the nation in Eric Murray, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, and Jalen Myrick (combined: five tackles for loss, seven interceptions, 23 break-ups).

There is no clear reason for last season's fade (other than the fact that the pass offenses on the schedule improved), but depth and experience are Minnesota's friends, and even if the pass rush doesn't come around, this should still be a top-40 defense.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Peter Mortell 6'2, 191 Sr. 67 45.1 12 16 25 61.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Ryan Santoso 6'6, 245 So. 70 63.5 38 2 54.3%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Ryan Santoso 6'6, 245 So. 45-46 9-10 90.0% 3-8 37.5%
Andrew Harte 6'0, 191 So. 0-1 0-0 N/A 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Jalen Myrick KR 5'10, 208 Jr. 18 28.2 1
Marcus Jones KR 10 24.4 0
Craig James PR 5'10, 189 So. 16 8.7 0
Marcus Jones PR 7 7.3 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 12
Field Goal Efficiency 105
Punt Return Efficiency 51
Kick Return Efficiency 14
Punt Efficiency 13
Kickoff Efficiency 34
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 105

9. Special teams weapons

Few teams tilted the field as well as Minnesota. The Gophers ranked 15th in field position margin (plus-5.4 yards per possession). Granted, thanks to good run defenses and great return men, this was a field position conference -- 15th overall meant fourth in the Big Ten behind No. 4 Ohio State, No. 5 Nebraska, and No. 9 Michigan State -- but it was still a strength.

And while the run played a role, Minnesota ranked 12th overall in special teams efficiency. Kicker Ryan Santoso was automatic inside of 40 yards (as a freshman) and knocked more than half of his kickoffs for touchbacks, Peter Mortell averaged more than 45 yards per punt, Craig James was a good punt return man (also as a freshman), and Jalen Myrick was an outstanding kick returner.

All of those guys return. Special teams is a small-sample unit prone to variance, but Minnesota has every reason to believe it will once again have an excellent unit.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
3-Sep TCU 18
12-Sep at Colorado State 72
19-Sep Kent State 97
26-Sep Ohio 96
3-Oct at Northwestern 62
10-Oct at Purdue 74
17-Oct Nebraska 30
31-Oct Michigan 35
7-Nov at Ohio State 2
14-Nov at Iowa 57
21-Nov Illinois 63
28-Nov Wisconsin 25
Five-Year F/+ Rk -4.9% (68)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 59 / 65
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 10 / 7.0
2014 TO Luck/Game +1.1
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (5, 7)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 7.7 (0.3)

10. Another volatile schedule

We saw this with Michigan, and we see it with Minnesota: a volatile schedule with better teams visiting you (in this case, TCU, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Michigan, all projected higher than the Gophers) and slightly lesser teams hosting you (trips to Iowa, Northwestern, Colorado State, and Purdue await).

That suggests Minnesota will be in close games and introduces a wide array of outcomes from "scraping by at 6-6" to "Big Ten West champs."

If the passing game doesn't completely fall apart without four of its top five targets, and if the defense can avoid fading, getting Nebraska and Wisconsin at home could make the difference in the division. But if special teams gets a little flaky, and last year's run defense was a bit of a mirage, then Minnesota could stumble outside of the top 50.

Years ago, one of the preseason mags would feature a one-page look at teams' likely records broken into likely wins, likely losses, and tossups. I know Minnesota fans are aiming high -- that's what happens when you've improved for three straight years and your biggest division rivals come to your place -- but a glance at the Gophers' schedule gives me something like four to five likely wins, two likely losses, and five to six tossups.

The Gophers might be ready for big things, and hey, keep betting on Kill until he gives you a reason not to. But the margin of error is small.