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U Football: Time to Evaluate

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November 28, 2012


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Except for a December bowl game to be announced soon, the Gophers football program has completed two seasons under head coach Jerry Kill and his staff.  There’s plenty of work ahead for players and coaches but it’s time to evaluate the Kill era.  Here’s the reality about Gophers football:

The program is better now than the mess Kill and company inherited in December of 2010.  On the field this fall the Gophers played their best defense in the last few years.  Minnesota held opponents to 23.9 points per game, down eight points from the 31.5 the previous season and 10 from the 33 points average in 2010.

Kill said he would build his program starting with defense and he could be on track to do so.  Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is impressive and some of the team’s better contributors are on defense including secondary players Derrick Wells and Michael Carter, and linemen D.L. Wilhite and Ra’Shede Hageman.

The defense has swarmed ball carriers and punished them.  That kind of performance has rarely been seen in the recent past.  Historically, part of the defensive problem has been the Gophers have struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks but this season Minnesota tied for fifth best in the Big Ten at 2.08 sacks per game.

In various defensive stats the Gophers compared favorably with other Big Ten teams. Minnesota was fourth in pass defense, ninth in rushing defense and fifth in total defense, giving up 352.8 yards per game.

The offense, operating with minimal talent and trying to overcome numerous injuries in the line and at quarterback, has been among the Big Ten’s worst.  The Gophers were ninth in the conference in scoring average per game, 21.3 points, and 10th in total offense at 317.5 yards.  They were eighth in rushing, and ninth in both passing and third down conversions.

The offense will need much better production in 2013 at most every position.  There’s optimism about the talent and depth in the line—with opinion that additional experience will allow the tackles, guards and centers to dominate the line of scrimmage at times in future seasons, if not in 2013 then beyond.

But an improved storyline about the offense includes the need for talented playmakers to emerge among the receivers, running backs and quarterbacks.  At times this season the personnel at those positions were completely subpar by Big Ten standards.

Special teams are a Kill resume highlight but limited personnel is again holding the Gophers back.  The staff did develop walk-on punter Christian Eldred and walk-on placekicker Jordan Wettstein into sometimes serviceable performers, but overall the Gophers have yet to distinguish themselves in most special teams categories including kickoff and punt returns, and in causing turnovers.

What the public doesn’t understand is how far behind the Gophers are in personnel compared with the better programs in the Big Ten.  And many fans don’t realize the game of college football demands a few years to develop the overall talent base.  That’s why teams redshirt players and encourage walk-ons to add depth and even quality to the roster.

With a legacy of losing, the Gophers program isn’t going to attract four and five-star recruits from around the nation—and at times not even from the state of Minnesota.  Instead, the Kill alternative is to identify potential in two and three-star recruits and develop at least some of those players into special players.

Will that work?  Can’t say because Kill and staff have only one recruiting class so far.  The answer will be known in three years when all the seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen are Kill recruits—many of them redshirts on a roster that should be loaded with experience.

Several seasons from now the Gophers will hope to duplicate Nebraska’s senior day this year when the Cornhuskers said goodbye to 29 seniors.  Included in the total were walk-ons, mostly from the state of Nebraska.

Worthy of comment is that the Gophers’ 2012 recruiting class was ranked by at the bottom in comparison to other Big Ten teams.  And a visit to the Rivals website shows Minnesota’s recruiting for 2013 ranked dead last in the conference.

That can change, of course, between now and National Signing Day in February.  Recruiting rankings aren’t the last word on how players will ultimately perform in college.  The rankings, though, are often a valid—if somewhat general—indication of which programs will have future success.  As mentioned, the Gophers will rely on the “under the radar” philosophy for locating talent and use teaching skills to improve players and prepare them for success.

While this might seem like a cross-your-fingers strategy, Kill and his staff have been successful in past recruiting assignments at other schools.  This is a staff that has spent many years working together.  That’s more than a sign they are successful as on the field coaches; it’s also an indication of recruiting success where they have not only identified potential talent but have had the relationships with high school and junior college coaches to earn trust and get an inside track on players.  And since arriving at Minnesota, Kill and his staff have made friends fast among the state’s high school coaches who admire their coaching skills and no-nonsense but personable approach.

Kill’s first Gophers team was 3-9, his second 6-6.  His predecessor, Tim Brewster, was 1-11 and 7-6 in his first two seasons, 2007 and 2008.  That second season included a bowl game loss, and season No. 3 featured another bowl game and overall record of 6-7.  Brewster was fired after seven games into his fourth and last season and the Gophers finished with a 3-9 record.

Brewster, long a target of criticism by Gopher Nation, won 8 games and lost 17 in his first two seasons, a record similar to Kill who with one bowl game yet to be played has 9 wins, 15 losses.  But Kill supporters will argue, and probably rightly so, that he inherited even more problems—including subpar personnel—than Brewster did.

What impressed in 2012 was Minnesota pretty much won the games it should have—four nonconference wins including against FCS New Hampshire and Big Ten wins over Purdue and Illinois.  At times the Gophers were in Big Ten mismatches including a 38-14 beat down at Nebraska that could have ended far worse on the scoreboard.

Don’t expect the Gophers to have a record much different than 6-6 next season.  In 2013 Minnesota will have an easy nonconference schedule but the Big Ten games could be more difficult than in 2012 with neither Illinois nor Purdue on the schedule.

The best opportunities to win might be against Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium and at Indiana.  Sports Headliners has the 2012 Gophers at No. 10 in its Big Ten power rankings, and Minnesota could be similarly positioned in late November of next year.

Kill has the backing of University president Eric Kaler and athletic director Norwood Teague.  Their support is based on more than faith that the Gophers will eventually become consistent Big Ten winners.  It’s also based on admiration for how Kill and staff have dramatically improved team grade point averages, aggressively directing players to attend classes and do their homework.

The staff runs a disciplined program and won’t tolerate poor behavior in the community.  It’s no easy job trying to help over 100 football players stay out of trouble, but so far the Kill era has avoided major embarrassments that can sometimes include arrests by law enforcement.

Kaler and Teague may one day have to convince Kill to stay on as Gophers coach.  Kill’s reported $1.2 million annual salary is minimal compared with most Big Ten head coaches, and Minnesota’s assistants are believed to earn about average compensation by league standards.  Kill is extremely loyal to his assistant coaches and will push hard for their salaries.

If Kill has future success at Minnesota, he will be more attractive to other schools.  One trouble spot for the Gophers in retaining their coach could be in Manhattan, Kansas.  Kansas State coach Bill Snyder is 73 years old and Kill is a Kansas native.  The Wildcats’ program is a winner, way ahead of the Gophers, and Snyder and Kill share similar coaching philosophies.

But for now the truth is that an indifferent and somewhat uninformed public is not deeply invested in Kill or Gophers football.  In his two seasons here the Gophers have sold out only one game in TCF Bank Stadium (capacity 50,805).

Kill and others have aggressively reached out to the students, encouraging them to attend games.  Their attendance has been disappointing and at times pathetic, including last Saturday’s showing at the Michigan State game where it appeared maybe 1,000 warm young bodies sat in the student section.

Kill’s image took a hit this fall over the cancellation of the North Carolina nonconference series in 2013 and 2014.  The decision didn’t sit well with fans who know that for too many years the Gophers mostly avoided scheduling nonconference home games with teams from major college football conferences.  The change was particularly discouraging to season ticket holders who see the value of their tickets reduced when about 37 percent of the home schedule is played against teams perceived as “cupcakes.”

And Kill’s seizures gnaw at the perception of the program.  In two years he has had three reported game day seizures.  The incidents have left the public worried about the coach’s health and long term strength to perform his incredibly demanding job.

Kill, who has recently faced additional stress not only from his job but also from family developments, insists his health isn’t an issue regarding performance and rebuilding the Gophers.  He and his doctors know a lot more about his health than we do.  I presume Kill will be fit to do his job in the foreseeable future—a future he and fans hope will see the program become a lot “healthier.”

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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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