YES, THE GOPHERS TOOK A STEP BACK IN THEIR FIRST SEASON under Jerry Kill—they suffered a loss in yards gained (from 361.3 per game in 2010 to 310.3 in '11) and a rise in yards allowed (392.2 in '10 to 403.1 in '11)—but that can be expected of a program in the skeletal stages of a rebuild. Yes, Kill won twice as many games in his first year at Northern Illinois (six) as he did last season in the Twin Cities (three), but consider how close he came to at least repeating himself: Of Minnesota's nine losses three came by a touchdown or less; two were to Top 25 teams.
Those near wins were a testament to a Gophers defense that retained a level of tenacity despite being the conference's slowest and poorest tackling unit in 2011. The smooth transition of Ra'Shede Hageman from tight end to defensive end has emboldened Kill to move around other misallocated resources on the Minnesota D. Senior Mike Rallis slides from outside linebacker to middle, and junior James Manuel moves down from safety to linebacker while his classmate Brock Vereen backpedals into the breach from his cornerback spot.
Another of the Gophers' talented position changers is senior signal-caller MarQueis Gray, a four-star quarterback recruit who was consigned to receiver his first two seasons. He excelled as a ballcarrier in his return under center last year, averaging 87.8 yards in 11 games. The addition of junior tailback James Gillum, a 2,000-yard rusher in two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast J.C., figures to makes Gray even more dangerous.
Although he struggled as a passer, completing just 50.7% of his throws last year, Gray dedicated himself in the spring to boosting his secondary reading comprehension skills. Now he believes he can make a green wideout corps (which had just one touchdown catch in 2011) look anything but—especially if the whole team can limit its unforced errors. "In the games we lost we had a max of six mistakes on each side of the ball that cost us," says Gray, who personally accounted for nine of Minnesota's 17 turnovers. "We're going to make sure we take care of the little things so that we can be bowl eligible." And don't snicker—the Gophers can be that. The step back merely positions them for a great leap forward.
COACH Jerry Kill (2nd year) 3--9 (2--6 in Big Ten)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Matt Limegrover
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Tracy Claeys
2011 RECORD 3--9 (2--6, 6th in Legends Division)