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Here’s Your U Football Predictions

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August 24, 2012

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Sports Headliners evaluated the Gophers coaching, special teams, and offensive and defensive units.  With 12 teams in the Big Ten Conference, a number of 1 through 12 was assigned to where those entities rank.

The Gophers (with a tweak of optimism) were given an overall No. 7 ranking (63 points divided by 9).  That means Minnesota is projected as the seventh best team in the conference this fall.

Here’s how Sports Headliners arrived at that number:

Coaching: Former LSU and Indiana head coach Gerry DiNardo, now working as an analyst for the Big Ten Network, said earlier this month Gophers coach Jerry Kill and his staff will consistently win games against teams with similar talent.  That’s coaching, folks.

But until this staff, now in its second year at Minnesota, accomplishes more than last season’s 3-9 record Sports Headliners can’t vault the group near the top of the Big Ten coaching ladder. Let’s say Minnesota’s coaches are better than Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, Penn State and Purdue.  Rank: 7.

Special teams: Kill is all-in about special teams and the results should be a team strength.  Competition for assignments and team speed will help the Gophers in punting, kickoffs, field goals, coverages and returns.

The team’s punting was a nightmare last season but in practice this month four punters are trying to win the job.  Also, placekickers Jordan Wettstein (six of six) and Chris Hawthorne (six of nine) combined for 12 field goals last season and have been competing in camp.  Wettstein is a senior, Hawthorne a junior.

Troy Stoudermire holds the career Big Ten kickoff yardage return record with 3,102.  He needs 315 yards to set the NCAA record.

Last season the Gophers blocked a punt and executed a key onside kick to help win games.  With more experience, the Gophers figure to be even better in special teams—long known as an impressive part of the Kill resume.  Rank: 6.

Quarterback: The Big Ten has lots of promising quarterbacks so it requires some faith in MarQueis Gray’s extraordinary athleticism to push him toward the top of the rankings.  Even the casual fan knows Gray, who set school single game and season rushing records for a quarterback last year, must improve his passing in 2012.

Last season he threw eight touchdown passes and the same number of interceptions.  Now a senior, Gray understands the Gophers system and how to read defenses better than last year, his first full season as a starting quarterback.

Kill has confidence in Gray and there’s no doubt he’s the team’s preseason choice for MVP.  Sports Headliners wants a seat on the Gray bandwagon while noting if the Gophers lose him because of injury…well, their season looks grey.  Rank: 5.

Running backs:  When DiNardo was in Minneapolis to evaluate the Gophers for the Big Ten Network he spoke bluntly about the running backs.  The pronouncement: no one in the group scares opponents.

It’s hard not to nod in agreement with that statement, and passionate Gophers fans will argue Minnesota hasn’t had a big time talent at running back since Gary Russell was finishing his brief career here.  During the coming season Kill will provide playing time to at least a couple of running backs, perhaps several.

The by-committee approach is one Kill used at other schools where he’s coached.  That could change some day if the Gophers find another Laurence Maroney or Marion Barber III, but for now the running back unit doesn’t look like a strength.  Rank: 9.

Wide receivers & tight ends: The Gophers had 10 receptions for touchdowns last season.  Returning players accounted for only three.  Senior wide receiver Brandon Green caught one touchdown pass and senior tight end John Rabe had two.

Kill told Sports Headliners earlier this year the Gophers have to find receivers who can “go make a play.”  That sometimes means a difficult catch or a long run after a reception.  Rabe figures to start at tight end but who will get the most playing time at the other receiving positions is puzzling.

This much is for sure: most of those who will make big plays for the Gophers catching the ball will be freshmen and sophomores.  There’s talent in the group but until proven differently skepticism is justified.  Rank: 8.

Offensive line:  If the Gophers are to eventually approach the success of Wisconsin or even Iowa, this unit needs to become a program strength.  State of Minnesota high school programs should be able to mainstream promising offensive linemen to Dinkytown, guys at least good enough for Kill and staff to bulk up and coach up to a high level.

The line will be better than a year ago with young talent starting to mature.  The unit’s star likely will be junior left tackle Ed Olson.  Kill has told Sports Headliners Olson could experience a “breakout” season.

The Gophers have a half dozen or so freshmen, sophomore and junior candidates who could factor into contributing to an improved offensive line.  The opinion here, though, is the line is at least one year away from being outstanding.  Rank: No. 7.

Defensive line:  Let’s count the seasons the Gophers have had poor defensive line play and the pass rush was…well, what pass rush?  Never mind.  I don’t have time to count that high.

The Gophers defense gave up 31.1 points per game last season.  That ranked 11th in the Big Ten and the performance of the defensive line was part of the problem. This season’s unit will be more experienced and has a potential star (a rarity in recent program history) in defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman.  The redshirt junior from Minneapolis could be difficult for opponents to block and may become one of Minnesota’s most dominant linemen in years.

Kill will play numerous linemen in games to keep them fresh.  At least some look like they bring special skill sets like pass rusher Theiren Cockran and hard working former walk-on Cameron Botticelli.  Kill has achieved success at other schools with a strong defense and this year’s version could be much improved.  Rank: No. 7.

Linebackers:  Kill talks about having only 10 seniors on the roster but this is a unit with experience.  Senior linebackers Keanon Cooper, Aaron Hill, Mike Rallis and Spencer Reeves have 45 career starts.

But perhaps the star of the unit could be James Manuel, a junior and converted safety.  Two years ago during August practices then head coach Tim Brewster was excited about Manuel.  In Manuel’s first two seasons he started only three games but the player Brewster described as “a man” at 19 years old is talented.

Can the unit make a lot of big plays for the Gophers game-by-game?  We’ll see.  Rank: No. 8.

Defensive backs:  The Gophers secondary produced only four interceptions last season, and like the other parts of the defense the tackling was inconsistent. But this could be one of the most improved units on the team in 2012.

Kill can start two senior cornerbacks in Stoudermire and Michael Carter.  Junior Derrick Wells has been converted from cornerback to safety and before August practices started, Kill mentioned Wells among potential key contributors on the team.

There’s more good news, too, with the addition of three junior college transfers in the secondary.  They provide needed depth, experience, athleticism and speed.  Rank: 6.

Conclusion: If Gray plays in all 12 games and the Gophers don’t have an epidemic of injuries overall, Minnesota could win five to seven games.  A 3-1 or 4-0 record in nonconference games looks probable.  Then two or three wins in the Big Ten is realistic.  Expect the Gophers not only to improve on last year’s 3-9 record, but to be more competitive and perform better throughout the fall than they did from game 1 through 12 in 2011.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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