- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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2011 record: 3-9
2011 conference record: 2-6 (sixth, Legends Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; Defense: 6; kicker/punter: 2
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: MarQueis Gray* (966 yards)
Passing: MarQueis Gray* (1,495 yards)
Receiving: Da'Jon McKnight (760 yards)
Tackles: Kim Royston (123)
Sacks: Gary Tinsley (4)
Interceptions: Troy Stoudermire* (2)
1. Better secondary play: The Gophers looked overmatched defending the pass at times last season, but things appear to have changed dramatically. The secondary took a major step forward this spring and looks to be as deep and talented as it's been in a few years. Head coach Jerry Kill brought in three junior-college defensive backs who should all contribute, including Martez Shabazz, and Troy Stoudermire returns at starting corner after getting an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. The Gophers were also able to move corner Brock Vereen to safety with the extra depth. Once a weakness, this position now figures to be a strength.
2. Gray matter: Quarterback MarQueis Gray had some big moments last year in his first year of starting but also struggled with inconsistency. That was expected from a guy who played receiver the previous year. Well, Gray greatly improved his mechanics in the offseason, and Minnesota coaches went to Baylor and other places to study how to best utilize his dynamic skills. Gray looked like a more accurate passer this spring, and he has a chance to rush for more than 1,000 yards and throw for more than 2,000 this season as the team's main weapon.
3. Need for speed: Minnesota hasn't had much of a pass rush for the past few years, but the team is hoping a move toward a lighter, speedier defense helps in that regard. Guys like redshirt freshman Thieren Cockran (a listed 235 pounds) and sophomore Michael Amaefula (245) fit the mold of what the Gophers are looking for in a defensive end: athletic, if undersized, quarterback chasers. Along with moving some former safeties down to outside linebacker, Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys are expecting to field faster players on the edge.
1. Skill set: Gray lost his favorite target in departed senior Da'Jon McKnight, and though several options are available, Minnesota lacks a clear No. 1 receiver. Senior Brandon Green and sophomore Marcus Jones -- coming off an ACL injury -- are among the veterans hoping to contribute. But the Gophers will likely need help from incoming freshmen like Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison. Junior-college transfer James Gillum could help in the running game, but the team is not deep at tailback. Skill-position players need to step up to keep Gray from being a one-man show.
2. Strength up the middle: While the defense is getting swifter on the perimeter, is it tough enough inside? The team lost both starting defensive tackles from a year ago, and there is very little experience or depth there. Junior college import Roland Johnson could help but is not arriving until the summer. Middle linebacker is another spot without much depth behind starter Mike Rallis. Will Minnesota be able to stand up against power teams like Wisconsin and Nebraska?
3. O-line depth: The good news is that four players who started on the offensive line return, with only right tackle really up for grabs right now. Yet this is an extremely young group overall, and an injury or two could thrust some players into action before they're quite ready. Kill brought in six offensive linemen in his first recruiting class, knowing he needed to rebuild the group. They'll be better off waiting another year before seeing major action.