Big Ten: Devin Crawford-Tufts

Minnesota season preview

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
10:30
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Minnesota hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 1967. Head coach Jerry Kill was 6 years old and most of the current fan base really can’t remember those “glory days.” Could it be another interesting year for the Gophers? Oh yeah sure, you betcha.

MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS

Coach: Jerry Kill (136-89 overall, 9-16 at Minnesota)

2012 record: 6-7 (2-6 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB MarQueis Gray, QB Max Shortell, WR A.J. Barker, WR Devin Crawford-Tufts, CB Michael Carter

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMinnesota QB Philip Nelson has an experienced offensive line but needs to find some chemistry with his receivers in 2013.
Key returnees: QB Philip Nelson, OL, NT Ra’Shede Hageman, LB Aaron Hill, TE Drew Goodger

Newcomer to watch: Freshman QB/WR Donovahn Jones. He played both positions in high school, but Kill would likely use him as a wide receiver who has the ability to really stretch the field vertically for Nelson. At 6-foot-2, 189 pounds, he’s big enough to create tough matchups, but his athleticism and speed (4.69 in the 40) could give him the edge in a lot of those scenarios.

Biggest games in 2013: vs. Iowa (Sept. 28), vs. Nebraska (Oct. 26), vs. Penn State (Nov. 9), at Michigan State (Nov. 30)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can Nelson run this offense? He spent last year getting redshirted, then not, then battling for the starting spot. Now, he’s the only Gophers signal-caller who has ever taken a college snap. If Minnesota has bowl dreams, they rest heavily on Nelson’s shoulders.

It doesn’t help Nelson that he really doesn’t have much established chemistry with any current receiver, however, the offensive line returns much of its experience, which will benefit the sophomore QB. At this point, it’s pretty much a toss-up. Nelson seems ready to lead the offense, but whether or not he’ll lead an offense that can actually make plays remains to be seen.

Forecast: The conference seems to be positioning itself, at least for this season, as a Big Two-Little Ten situation that dominated the conference for years. Michigan and Ohio State return plenty of experience and confidence -- and well, Minnesota just doesn’t.

However, the Gophers sit in that second tier of teams that could go either way. The home schedule provides plenty of interesting matchups for the Gophers to potentially pick up signature wins on their home turf. If they can take down Northwestern and/or Wisconsin in November, those could be wins that put Minnesota on the map for some bowl games. But in order to make those games worth anything, it will have to win the games earlier in this season, which hasn’t always been a strong point.

The offense is shaping up to be somewhat impressive, but there are also a lot of gaps at crucial positions. The individual skill of Hageman and a few other players could land them on some All-Big Ten teams, but there just isn’t enough talent to go around to really lift this team into the upper echelon of Big Ten football quite yet.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 30, 2013
7/30/13
12:00
PM ET
On my way to the Mothership. The Big Ten coaches' car wash is on tap.
One of Minnesota's pressing needs is to find a receiver who can stretch the field and make big plays. Arguably its fastest wideout from 2012 won't be around to help this year.

The team announced Monday that junior Devin Crawford-Tufts will focus solely on the school's track team this year and will not play football. Crawford-Tufts was fourth on the team last year with 16 catches for 189 yards, and he grabbed a touchdown reception against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

But he is arguably more promising as a track competitor. A Minnesota state champion in the 100 and 200 meters in high school, he joined the Gophers' track team in February and finished fourth at the Big Ten championships in the 60 meters.

Crawford-Tufts probably wouldn't have been one of the team's top options at receiver this year, but he definitely would have been in the rotation for playing time. And Minnesota is still thin there in experienced options, with Isaac Fruechte, Derrick Engel and Andre McDonald needing to take steps forward to help improve the passing game.
2012 record: 6-7
2012 conference record: 2-6 (tied for fifth in Legends Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Philip Nelson, RB Donnell Kirkwood, DT Ra'Shede Hageman, S Brock Vereen, DB Derrick Wells, LT Ed Olson, DE Michael Amaefula

Key losses

QB/WR MarQueis Gray, CB Michael Carter, CB Troy Stoudermire, DE D.L. Wilhite, LB Mike Rallis, LB Keanon Cooper

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Donnell Kirkwood* (926 yards)
Passing: Philip Nelson* (873 yards)
Receiving: A.J. Barker (577 yards)
Tackles: Troy Stoudermire (82)
Sacks: D.L. Wilhite (8.5)
Interceptions: Michael Carter (4)

Spring answers

1. Identity verified: The Gophers figured out who they wanted to be on offense and were able to start implementing that during bowl practice last December: a physical, run-first team. It worked in the Meineke Car Care Bowl and carried over into this spring, with an offensive line that's developing a nasty streak and two power backs in Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. The Gophers will look to bring that hard-nosed approach into this fall.

2. Phil the one: Philip Nelson took over as the team's starting quarterback as a true freshman at midseason last year, but he wasn't guaranteed the starting job this offseason. Despite getting good competition from Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler, Nelson played well enough this spring that head coach Jerry Kill says it's his spot to lose. Leidner also impressed at times and is a great athlete, so Minnesota has options at the position this year.

3. Turning the corner: The Gophers had to replace two standout seniors at cornerback in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire. They feel good about at least one of those spots after Derrick Wells moved from safety to corner this offseason and handled the position nicely. Wells made some big plays at safety last year, and the hope is he can do the same at his new spot. There's not a lot of proven options at the other corner role, but three players who transferred from junior college last year are pushing for time, while the safety position has good depth and is led by Brock Vereen.

Fall questions

1. Linebacker holes: The Gophers lost most of their contributors at linebacker from last year, with Aaron Hill the only leftover starter. It's why they signed five linebackers in this year's recruiting class. Junior college transfer Damien Wilson lived up to advance billing, and Kill is expecting big things out of another incoming juco, De'Vondre Campbell. But anytime you're relying on newcomers and players arriving in the summer, nothing is for certain.

2. Downfield passing: The passing game was shaky at best for the Gophers in 2012, and things didn't exactly get better when leading receiver A.J. Barker transferred. Minnesota doesn't have anyone who eclipsed 375 receiving yards a year ago. Kill is hoping to see improvement from Derrick Engel, Isaac Fruechte, Devin Crawford-Tufts and a healthy Jamel Harbison. But those guys must prove they can make plays when it counts.

3. Rushing the passer: D.L. Wilhite and his team-leading 8.5 sacks from a year ago are gone. Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman looked like a beast this spring, but no other returnee had more than two sacks a year ago. The Gophers need players who can get after the quarterback off the edge, and they're hoping Theiren Cockran, Michael Amaefula and Ben Perry make the same kind of strides Wilhite and Hageman did a year ago. But again, they have to prove it.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 11, 2013
4/11/13
12:00
PM ET
Prepare to Phil the agony of Dun-feat!
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill guided the team to a bowl game during his second season in Minneapolis despite some depth and injury problems in 2012. What's in store for Year 3 of the Kill era? I recently caught up with him to get his outlook for the Gophers' spring practice, which opens today.

How has the offseason gone for you guys so far?

Jerry Kill: Well, I think the bowl game, even though we lost, the kids played very hard and well. We got healthy, for one, before we went to the bowl, and we had a great month with our kids and a great experience. And coming into the offseason, I think there was a lot of confidence gained. All our kids' strength and testing numbers went up. I guess I can use Ra'Shede Hageman as an example, He benched 450 pounds, squatted well over 500 and cleaned 350, with a 38-inch vertical. So kids like that got a lot better.

We feel up front and on the defensive line, we've gotten stronger. I think we've added some depth to the defensive line, and secondary-wise, we played several freshmen in that game against Texas Tech. We've got the flexibility to play Derrick Wells at corner and safety. I think the biggest question mark we've got going in is, we lost five scholarship linebackers. It's like a year ago when we lost seven secondary players and kind of hit the jackpot in recruiting. Damien Wilson, a junior college transfer, has had a great spring, and I'm looking forward to seeing him on the field. The guys who need the reps this spring are James Manuel, Aaron Hill, Lamonte Edwards, and young men we redshirted named Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis. And then we've got four other kids coming when fall camp starts. Our secondary a year ago had a lot of questions and really played well. I think, this year, linebacker is where we need to step up on defense.

And then on offense, I feel we'll be a much better football team than we were a year ago because we get everybody back except for Brandon Green and Q [MarQueis Gray], really. So I think that unit will be much improved.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJerry Kill begins his third season as head coach of the Gophers.
You showed off a good power running game in that bowl game. Is that what we should expect from your offense going forward?

JK: Yeah, that's what we were at Northern Illinois. We could run the power at you, but then we were athletic enough to turn and run the zone read with the quarterback. Both [Chandler] Harnisch and [Jordan] Lynch, when we needed to throw it, we completed it. But we still made our living on running the football. It was the first time, in the bowl game, that we had the same offensive line that we had at the beginning of the seaon. We had so many people get experience there. But that's what we want to be -- a team that gives you a lot of different looks, shifting and motion and different personnel grouping. But you've still got to be able to run the football, and certainly in the Big Ten.

Speaking of that offensive line, after a lot of injuries there last year, how is the position looking this spring?

JK: Well, we've got a lot of depth, no question. Eddie Olson, he won't go through the spring, but he had a good year a year ago. If we can get his foot healed up and done right, it kind of works out. He'll continue to get stronger. We redshirted Jonah Pirsig, who's a 6-foot-8, 6-9, 320 pound tackle, Ben Lauer, who's 6-7 and probably 305, and Isaac Hayes, who is a 6-2, 300-pound offensive guard. So those kids, I'm anxious to see them in the spring.

We've got Zac Epping, Jon Christenson and Caleb Bak -- in the weight room, he benched 350, squatted 550, so he's gotten stronger. Josh Campion is a strong kid; he benches well over 400 pounds. So the same guys who when I first got here were getting pushed around have gotten stronger. And then we've added these young kids that have come in. Marek Lenkiewicz is up to 290 pounds, Tommy Olson is healthy again and Brian Bobek, who transferred from Ohio State and had great credentials when he went to Ohio State, he's another one who's very physically strong. Then there's Foster Bush and Joe Bjorklund. They're all young kids, but they've gotten physically stronger.

When we got here, I think we had about seven or eight offensive linemen. So we've built it through walk-ons and kind of did it the hard way. But I feel good about that position, along with our tight ends, quarterbacks and receivers. Our defense improved tremendously from one year to the next. For us to be competitive in the Big Ten -- which I think we can be -- our offense has to take the steps our defense did a year ago. And I think we can.

Philip Nelson finished the season for you at quarterback and had a nice bowl game, but you also have some talented young guys there. Is it his job to lose this spring or a more open competition?

JK: We took the redshirt off Philip last year, and he did some good things and had some things he struggled with, as you'd expect for a freshman. He did some great things in the bowl game. When we go into camp, somebody is going to have to go in there and beat him out. But the thing that's good about that is the competition.

Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler are great athletes who can play another position if needed, but they both want to play quarterback and they're very capable of giving someone a run for their money. I can tell you, our defense is very high on Leidner. Mitch is probably close to 6-5 and 230, and he is a 4.6, 4.65 guy [in the 40-yard dash]. And very strong. And then Streveler is quicker than that. He came in during the second semester, and I think he's the third-fastest guy on our team. When we had him in camp, he played receiver also.

So all three of those guys are great kids, students of the game, and the type of kids you want playing quarterback leadership-wise. We'll let it work out. Leidner and Streveler are the type of kids who would say, "Coach, if it helps the team if you move me, I'll do that." But in the spring we're going to let them compete and make sure we're solid at that position. If you look at last year, it was kind of a miracle we got to a bowl game, because we had three different quarterbacks and three different centers. Not many people can win doing that.

(Read full post)

Spring practice has begun in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what to expect from each Legends Division team this spring.

IOWA

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Questions at quarterback: The Hawkeyes played James Vandenberg for every snap last season, and now that he's gone, they have no quarterbacks on the roster with any game experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock has been viewed as Vandenberg's successor, but he's still a mostly unknown quantity who should get pushed in the spring by former junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with improving an Iowa passing game that finished with a Big Ten-worst seven touchdown passes in 2012.

2. Skills competition: While the quarterback race is vital, Iowa also needs standouts to emerge at the other skill positions to fix an offense that sputtered under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. The wideout corps, which struggled to get separation or make big plays, now is without departed senior Keenan Davis, who tied for the team lead with 571 receiving yards. There's a reason why Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. The running back position has strength in numbers, with Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill all competing for carries this spring. The Hawkeyes just need to finally get some luck in the health and off-field departments at that position while hoping one player emerges as the go-to back.

3. Transition game: Iowa long had one of the most stable staffs in the country. But coach Kirk Ferentz added three new assistants this offseason for the second straight year, giving the program some fresh voices but also causing some potential bumps in transition. The offense in particular didn't mesh well last season under Davis, who'll look for solutions this spring. Ferentz has new coaches overseeing the running backs (Chris White) and receivers (Bobby Kennedy) and a new defensive assistant who'll work with the linebackers (Jim Reid). The Hawkeyes hope they can inject some life into a program that has seen its fortunes dip the past couple of seasons, including last year's 4-8 disaster.

MICHIGAN

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Devin Gardner as starter: Denard Robinson is gone and Gardner is the presumed Michigan starter for the first time. How he adjusts to that -- and how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges develops more of a pro-style offense around him -- are a major launching point for the Wolverines next season.

2. Offensive line play: Michigan is replacing the entire interior of its offensive line and while there is a lot of young talent there, none of the potential candidates have any experience. Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he would like to have at least one of the three slots, if not two, settled by the end of spring.

3. Linebacker competition: The deepest position on Michigan’s roster also has the most competition. Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker is almost a given, but the middle and weak side slots are wide open. A bevy of freshmen and sophomores, along with returning starter Desmond Morgan, will vie for playing time in what will be a likely increased rotation in the fall.

-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation

MICHIGAN STATE

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Still Maxwell's house?: Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season at quarterback but was pulled in favor of freshman Connor Cook for the deciding drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartans will open up the competition under center, with Tyler O'Connor and eventually incoming freshman Damion Terry joining the fray. Though he has a big edge in experience, Maxwell will have to prove that he can greatly increase last season's 52.5 completion percentage to hold onto the job through the spring.

2. Replacing Bell: Saying running back Le'Veon Bell was a big part of the 2012 offense is like saying Tom Hanks had substantial role in "Cast Away." Bell carried the ball 382 times last year, more than any back in the country, and gained 1,793 yards. There is no ready-made in-house replacement, as leading returning rusher Nick Hill had just 21 rushing attempts last year and may be too slight (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) to be an every-down back. Junior Jeremy Langford will move back to the backfield after seeing time at receiver. Signees Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton might wind up with the job.

3. New playcaller in town: Mark Dantonio has yet to officially announce a replacement for former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who recently left for an assistant's post with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But reports are that former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has been tapped to lead the Spartans' offense. Can Bollman, whom Buckeyes fans criticized as being too conservative, find the solutions for what was a dreadful attack in 2012? The Spartans' defense once again enters spring ball with very few question marks. Michigan State's hopes rely heavily on how much progress it can make on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Defensive back end: The Gophers lost two outstanding cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as starting linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Jerry Kill has tried to address this during recruiting, adding a pair of well-regarded junior college linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson) as well as touted high school corner Jalen Myrick. But some holdovers from last season's roster will have to step into bigger roles this spring.

2. The full Nelson: True freshman Philip Nelson took over the quarterback job midseason and now will enter practice as the starter. He showed flashes of immense potential but still has a lot of things to learn. Kill has said Nelson is no lock to start in 2013 and that he'll face legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and incoming freshman Chris Streveler. Nelson has the inside track for now but must hold onto it.

3. Receiving line: The Gophers don't have a returning wideout who had more than 375 receiving yards last year, though Derrick Engel showed promise with a 100-yard day in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. You can blame some of that on the turnover and youth at quarterback. But Minnesota needs much better play at receiver to become a more balanced offense. Improvement by guys like Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte this spring will help, as would some immediate contributions from recruits Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky.

NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. Youth movement on defense: The Cornhuskers lost eight starters from last season's defense and will hope that some athletic young players are ready to step in. Guys like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown will be given long looks this spring. Nebraska coaches are hopeful that what they lack in experience, they'll make up for in speed. There's no bigger key for Big Red than having its young defenders make great strides in the spring.

2. Safety issues: The safety spot is an important one in Bo Pelini's scheme, and the Huskers lose both starters and a couple of top reserves from that position. Jackson will be given a look there, and the staff is high on Corey Cooper. But no starting jobs are locked down.

3. Martinez's progression: Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez won't be involved in a lot of live drills, and the spring will be a time to get freshman Tommy Armstrong some reps. But Martinez still needs to fine-tune a few parts of his game, most notably his tendency to force throws in key spots. He made great progress last offseason through extra hours of hard work; a similar leap this spring would make Martinez one of the very best players in the country.

NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. The quarterback duo: The Wildcats spent large parts of last season rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, using Siemian for more obvious passing situations. Will that continue this season? Colter needs to improve as a passer to become a better option as an every-down quarterback, and Northwestern's downfield passing game must get better. You can bet there will be a lot of eyes on Colter and Siemian this spring to see what offensive coordinator Mick McCall has planned.

2. Secondary concerns: The news that cornerback Nick VanHoose won't practice this spring because of injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Wildcats' secondary struggled when he was hurt last season, so this may provide an opportunity for others to get better without him. Jimmy Hall and Traveon Henry are youngsters who should see plenty of reps this spring in the defensive backfield.

3. Offensive line makeover: Three starters are gone from last season's offensive line, including both guards and left tackle Patrick Ward. Jack Konopka is the favorite to succeed Ward but will miss the spring with injuries, while 2012 signee Adam DePietro is among those who could step in at guard. Northwestern should have one of the best running games in the Big Ten in 2013 but will need its line to begin to take shape this spring.
After a brief break for signing day, the postseason position rankings return with the wide receivers and tight ends. The Big Ten had only one team (Indiana) rank in the top 30 nationally in pass offense, and the league's overall depth at receiver and tight end wasn't good at all, but a few groups of pass-catchers stood out.

As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance during the 2012 season and factor in both star power and depth. Here's a look at our preseason rundown.

There's clear separation with the top three groups, while the bottom four could be rearranged just about any way you want (if you enjoy that sort of thing).

Now let's get started ...

[+] EnlargeCody Latimer
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Cody Latimer should have a productive season in Indiana's pass-oriented system.
1. Indiana (Preseason ranking: 8): The Hoosiers attempted 58 more passes than any other Big Ten team, but they had plenty of reasons to do so and merit top billing here. Speedster Shane Wynn led the squad in receptions with 68, but Cody Latimer emerged into the star of the group, recording 51 receptions for 806 yards and six touchdowns. Like Latimer, Kofi Hughes stretched the field and averaged nearly 15 yards per reception. Tight end Ted Bolser also made nice contributions (41 catches, 445 yards). IU had five receivers or tight ends finish with at least 23 receptions.

2. Nebraska (Preseason ranking: 2): The Huskers' multitude of big-play threats nearly put them in the top spot, as they helped Nebraska finish with the Big Ten's top offense (460.8 ypg). Wideout Kenny Bell led the way with 863 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on 50 receptions (17.3-yard average). Receiver Jamal Turner and tight ends Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton all averaged at least 13 yards per reception. Quincy Enunwa became a nice No. 2 target with 42 receptions for 470 yards.

3. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 7): Few saw this coming before the season, and our preseason capsule about the Nittany Lions began with, "Justin Brown gives the Nittany Lions a solid top option." Whoops. Even though Brown transferred in the wake of the NCAA sanctions, Penn State found surprise stars in wide receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Kyle Carter. Robinson won the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award after leading the league in receptions (77), receiving yards (1,013) and touchdown catches (11). Carter (36 catches for 453 yards) might have been the league's top tight end, a position where Penn State had unparalleled depth. Players like wideout Brandon Moseby-Felder and tight end Matt Lehman emerged later in the season.

4. Purdue (Preseason ranking: 5): There's definitely a drop-off after the top three groups, but Purdue had a nice crop of receivers who likely would have put up bigger numbers if quarterback Robert Marve had stayed healthy all season. Wideouts O.J. Ross (56 receptions, 454 yards) and Antavian Edison (58 receptions, 682 yards) both finished in the league's top five in receptions, while Gary Bush also eclipsed the 40-catch mark. Young wideout Dolapo Macarthy showed promise, and tight ends Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright combined for 47 receptions.

5. Michigan (Preseason ranking: 6): No offense to Denard Robinson, but Michigan's receiving corps truly got its chance to shine once Devin Gardner took control at quarterback. Michigan became a much more pass-oriented offense and stretched the field with several players. Jeremy Gallon turned in a very solid junior season with 49 receptions for 829 yards and four touchdowns (16.9-yard average). Roy Roundtree came on strong late in the season and made the catch of the year in the league against Northwestern to force overtime. Michigan received nice contributions from wideout Drew Dileo and young tight end Devin Funchess (five touchdowns), and Gardner himself made some plays early on before switching permanently to QB.

6. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 9): Coach Urban Meyer is looking for much more from Ohio State's perimeter players, but in a pass-challenged league like the Big Ten, Ohio State's receivers and tight ends finish in the middle of the pack. Corey Brown quietly produced a 60-catch season, finishing fourth in the league in receptions (5 rpg). Devin Smith had half as many receptions as Brown but finished with nearly the same yardage total (669-618) as he became Braxton Miller's top deep threat. Jake Stoneburner had four touchdown catches, while sophomore tight end Jeff Heuerman showed some promise.

7. Northwestern (Preseason ranking: 1): Thanks to the emergence of Venric Mark, Northwestern became a much more run-driven offense than we anticipated before the season, although the receiving corps underachieved a bit. The Wildcats had no true stars, although they boasted some nice balance as four players recorded at least 29 receptions. The big bright spot late in the season came from freshman tight end Dan Vitale, who recorded 28 receptions for 288 yards and two touchdowns. USC transfer Kyle Prater wasn't much of a factor (10 catches, 54 yards). Quarterback Kain Colter might have provided the best performance from a Northwestern receiver when he moved there against Indiana and recorded career highs for both receptions (9) and receiving yards (131).

8. Michigan State (Preseason ranking: 11): It says something about the Big Ten when Michigan State's receivers, who received heavy criticism for much of the season, finish in the top two-thirds of the rankings. But the Spartans simply produced a lot more than the groups below them. They had arguably the league's top tight end in Dion Sims, who recorded 36 receptions for 475 yards before opting to skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft. Freshman Aaron Burbridge emerged at receiver during Big Ten play (29 receptions, 364), and the Spartans had three receivers record at least 36 receptions and two -- Keith Mumphery and Bennie Fowler -- with more than 500 receiving yards.

9. Wisconsin (Preseason ranking: 3): Wisconsin had a major shortage of depth, which hurt during a season where three different players started at quarterback. The Badgers had one of the league's best wide receivers in Jared Abbrederis (49 receptions, 837 yards, 5 TDs), and Jacob Pedersen won the Big Ten's Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year award, albeit in surprising fashion. But no other players recorded 20 receptions and Wisconsin ended up finishing last in the Big Ten and 111th nationally in passing.

10. Iowa (Preseason rank: 4): The Hawkeyes struggled to consistently pass the ball, and getting into the end zone proved to be nearly impossible as they finished with just seven receiving touchdowns. Kevonte Martin-Manley, the group's bright spot with 52 catches for 571 yards, was the lone Hawkeye with multiple scoring receptions in 2012. Keenan Davis fell short of expectations and while C.J. Fiedorowicz put up nice numbers for a tight end (45 receptions, 433 yards), many expected more from him as well. Like several Big Ten squads, Iowa struggled with depth at receiver.

11. Illinois (Preseason ranking: 10): We had concerns about Illinois' skill-position talent and depth before the season, and it proved true. Although the Illini had four players record at least 25 receptions, two of them -- receptions leader Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson -- play running back. Ryan Lankford was the team's top wideout with 469 receiving yards and five touchdowns, while Darius Millines once again struggled to stay healthy. Spencer Harris contributed 21 catches for 252 yards and two scores, but Illinois needed much more to spark the league's worst offense.

12. Minnesota (Preseason ranking: 12): Like many of their Big Ten brethren, the Gophers lacked playmakers on the edge to provide balance on offense. Their best threat, A.J. Barker, left the program in not-so-quiet fashion after a spat with head coach Jerry Kill. Barker appeared in only eight games but still had 11 more receptions than any other Minnesota player. Receivers like Isaac Fruechte, Derrick Engel and Devin Crawford-Tufts showed flashes, and tight end John Rabe had four touchdown grabs, but Minnesota needs a lot more from this group going forward.

Q&A: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
9:45
AM ET
The 2012 college football season kicks off tonight, and Minnesota is the first Big Ten team in action as it visits UNLV. Tonight represents a fresh start for the Gophers and coach Jerry Kill, who had a rough first year in Minneapolis. The team started 1-6 and Kill had to be hospitalized after suffering a seizure on the sideline near the end of Minnesota's Week 2 loss to New Mexico State. The Gophers turned things around a bit with wins against rival Iowa and Illinois but finished 3-9 for the second consecutive season. There's more optimism these days in Dinkytown as Minnesota prepares for Year 2 under Kill, who boasts a strong track record of repairing programs. Senior quarterback MarQueis Gray leads a Gophers team many expect to be markedly improved.

ESPN.com caught up with Kill to discuss the state of his program entering tonight's opener.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillMinnesota coach Jerry Kill is preparing for his second season with the Gophers.
What were your main objectives in camp, and where are you as far as achieving them?

Jerry Kill: Going into two-a-day camps, we needed to identify some of the new kids as early as we possibly could to see if they could help us as freshmen. Personnel issues are always important, certainly when you're turning around a program and making sure you get people in the right places. I felt like we did that. We wanted to make sure offensively, defensively and in the kicking game, we could do what our kids could learn, where they could play fast. We've done that. And then we wanted to make sure each practice was important, and that we accomplished something. To this point, our kids have done a real nice job. We've accomplished everything that we set out to do in camp. We need to go play to see where we're at.

Last year, you were pretty honest about the work you had in front of you. Is your team readier for the season this time around?

Kill: It's a different year, different team. And we're going through a transition. We're not like some of the other schools in the country. We're building a program. But I know that the returning players feel a lot more comfortable because they've had the same coaching staff for the first time in many, many years here. The continuity of our staff and the players that are returning, and then the new players have come in and adapted pretty well, I would say we feel more comfortable.

Everyone knows about MarQueis, but who else is going to make plays for you on offense this year?

Kill: From a receiver standpoint, we need Devin Tufts to have a great year, and he's had a very good camp. A young man who has come out of nowhere as a true freshman who has had a really big impact on what we do is Jamel Harbison. Marcus Jones, who is returning from an ACL injury, has had a good camp. Another true freshman is Andre McDonald, a young man who is a big-play guy, a guy who can go vertical and make plays. Those kids, Derrick Engel, we've got some length and speed that we maybe didn't have at that position. And then out of the backfield, with Donnell Kirkwood, James Gillum, K.J. Maye -- a true freshman who's a big play guy -- and Devon Wright, we haven't had that a year ago. We've added some speed and some playmaking ability on offense. That's something I was concerned about. We won't know how they operate and how they'll play until game day. We're young, and that's scary, but we're certainly more skillful than we were a year ago.

What units are you most curious to see in a game after working with them in the offseason?

Kill: Probably the whole team, but specific units, I think our secondary is very athletic and much better than it was a year ago. I'm excited to see how they play. I'm excited about [defensive tackle] Ra'Shede Hageman. There's no question he's going to play at the next level, and I think he's going to have a tremendous year. The young man is 6-5 and 315 and has a 38-inch vertical jump. He's a raw kid, but he's developed himself into a very, very good football player over the past 6-8 months. So I'm anxious to see Ra'Shede play. He could be a dominant force, not just in the Big Ten, but the country. He's a special player. They don't make them who look like that and run like that. And I'm excited seeing MarQueis play. I want to see how far he's come in a year. I think he's come a long way, but we'll see as we open up.

With Ra'Shede, the talent is there. Is it combining talent and technique and not just relying on his natural ability?

Kill: Well, that's what he's done. It all started against Illinois. He had a big game. Everybody has a way of growing up and maturing. He played tight end when he first got here, had kind of been moved around. He's found himself a home, he's settled in, he's accepted coaching very well. Ever since two-a-day camp started, he's been on a mission. He understands with a body like his and the way he runs, he's got a tremendous future ahead of him if he can develop the skills that it takes to play on the defensive line. He's done an outstanding job. He's a totally different player than he was a year ago.

How are you feeling, health-wise, entering this season?

Kill: Fantastic. I'm doing fantastic.

What do you expect out of UNLV?

Kill: I've coached against Bobby [Hauck]. He's in a process just like we are. He's basically two years ahead of us. Talking to him earlier in the year, he felt like this club was certainly going to be his best to this point in time. He felt like he had the pieces of the puzzle in the right place and was heading in the right direction. He has a young team and felt like this was going to be their year. Everywhere he's been, they play physical, they play hard-nosed, they don't turn the ball over. He's always got some good playmakers.

It's a late kickoff. Have you don't anything to prepare for that specifically?

Kill: It's like anything. We've been doing this a long time, this is my 30th year and we've played late games before. You go through the archives and you get your kids up in the morning, you have a walk-through and film and you keep them active during the day and get them ready, get them focused to play. Playing the first game, the most important thing is make sure they don't get too excited. I don't think there's any question they'll be ready to play. The way these young people are nowadays, it'll be 10 o'clock our time, and that's when they go out anyway. I'd like to think you get to play on TV, on opening night of college football, you'll find a way to get ready to go.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
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I must admit, it's a little painful reading through the mailbag submissions these days.

As you might imagine, the vast majority of questions/comments concern Penn State, and let's just say there's a lack of rationality and civil discourse in many of those emails. There's also very little that's new in the questions, and like most of you I'm quite weary of the subject.

So I've decided that today's mailbag is going to be Penn State-free. Let's move on to football questions. Have at it:

Robert R. from Enlightened City writes: I must ask, why do we have to have a division format to determine a champion? It seems to me that this only brings no good. First, it splits the teams and pulls them apart, making potentially huge match ups between Wisconsin and Michigan or Ohio State vs Nebraska only happen 4 out of 10 years instead of potentially 8 out of 10 years. Second if you look at the other conferences in the past who have or had divisions almost always they seem to be completely unbalanced (SEC now, Big 12 when they had them, PAC 12 last year, and the Big Ten now). Why doesn't the Big Ten just instead have a scheduling format like they did in the past and if they insist on having a Big Ten championship (indoors, which no other Big Ten football games are played) then at least make it between the 2 best teams every year by actually picking the 2 best teams. Your thoughts?

Brian Bennett: There's very little question why the Big Ten has divisions, Robert. It's money. The divisions are necessary once you go to 12 teams and a championship game, which is a very valuable property. While I would love to see balanced schedules, there is no way the Big Ten is going to move to 11 conference games in a 12-game season. Your proposal would make it extremely difficult some, if not most, years to determine the two most deserving teams in the Big Ten title game. What would the conference have done in 2010, when Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin all tied for the league title? And without uniform schedules, it would be tough to know which teams were truly better. The only way to make it completely fair would be to go back to 10 teams and play a round-robin schedule. But that horse left the barn a long time ago.


Dave R. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I think what you're seeing with B1G players refusing to, first, select Bret Bielema as a coach they would rather play for and, second, select Bielema as a coach they would never want to play for probably calls out a similar vibe to B1G fans. There's something inherently unlikeable about Bielema. Whether it's his perpetual smirk, his whining about recruiting, or his propensity to run up the score on far inferior teams. What are your thoughts?

Brian Bennett: Dave, I can understand why Bielema was mentioned in some responses, because Wisconsin has become a big rival for a few teams and the Badgers have issued some pretty bad beatdowns in recent years. But I was really surprised in the lack of responses of those wanting to play for Bielema. He's a young guy who relates to the players very well, and he goes all out in promoting his guys for individual awards. Plus, if you're an offensive guy, you're going to put up stats. Bielema's players love him.


Drew from Milwaukee writes: Predicting that a team (any team) will go undefeated before a single down of football has been played is a great way to make yourself look foolish. That being said, if Wisconsin can get out of Lincoln with a win I really like their chances of running the table. They'll be fired up to avenge last year's loss at MSU and they get them at home where MSU has only won once in the last decade. The 2012 Badgers are a better team than the 2010 version that drubbed the #1 ranked Buckeyes in Madison. Wisconsin will be heavily favored in its remaining games against Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois and Penn State. What are your thoughts on this scenario?

Brian Bennett: What's remarkable about Wisconsin the past two years is that its five losses have come by an average of fewer than six points. You could argue that all but one of them -- Michigan State in 2010 -- could have gone the other way if one play had turned out differently. And, of course, all have come away from Camp Randall. So it's no huge stretch to think that maybe the Badgers could get a little more luck this year and actually go undefeated, but to do so they're going to have to win the big road games. So the games at Nebraska, Penn State and even Purdue become paramount. I wouldn't discount how fired up the Nittany Lions will be for that season finale in State College. But if Wisconsin gets out of Lincoln at 5-0, the undefeated watch will definitely be on.


Joe M. from Ann Arbor writes: With all the focus on Michigan's DLine, which features some untested but talented youth, I think people are missing the glaring issues that could crop up on the OLine. One injury means you are probably playing a true freshman and there is no experienced depth whatsoever. Do you think people are overlooking a thin OLine and do you think that is more of an issue than what happens on the DLine (which is backstopped by solid LB/DB's)?

Brian Bennett: That's a good point, Joe, and one that I have mentioned here on occasion. I think Michigan's starting five on the offensive line will be really good. It's what happens if there's an injury or two that is scary. People forget that, until last year's Sugar Bowl, the Wolverines were remarkably healthy on both lines. They may not get that lucky two years in a row. They have some talented freshmen coming in with guys like Kyle Kalis, and at least one of them is likely to crack the two-deep. But you don't want to be playing with true freshmen on the offensive line in the Big Ten if you can avoid it.


TM from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Do you see B1G teams scheduling a 2nd BCS non-conference team to make up for the loss of the now defunct Pac-12 scheduling agreement?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, TM, and I think the answer is yes. The Big Ten and others expect strength of schedule to be a key component of the new playoff system. In announcing that the league would stay at eight conference games for the foreseeable future at the league's media days last month, commissioner Jim Delany said that the Big Ten schools who are serious about competing for national championships will play "enhanced schedules" that will "not only demonstrate strength by winning Big Ten championships but also demonstrate strength relative to other conferences." It's clear that he thinks power schools from the league need to schedule up, and many already have two good opponents on future schedules (Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin among them).

That doesn't work for every league team, though. Does it make sense for schools like Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue to schedule two tough nonconference games every year? No. But those schools who want to be considered for the four-team playoff need to have impressive schedules.


@Boilers2006 (via Twitter) writes: If you were Coach Hope, who would you start and keep at QB? Marve or TerBush?

Brian Bennett: That's a very good question, and I would definitely throw Rob Henry into the mix as well. Though he might not have the best arm among the three, he's probably the most athletic and has excellent leadership skills. Purdue's practices have been mostly closed all offseason, so it's hard to get a good gauge for who's playing the best at quarterback. Danny Hope sounded confident after spring that Caleb TerBush, who started all last season, remained his No. 1 guy, though there's little question that all three will play somewhere. I thought TerBush really got better as the year went along and made pretty good decisions at the end of the season. Marve is still intriguing because of his pure talent. I wonder if trying to juggle three guys with so much starting experience will hurt the Boilermakers in the long run. I don't think any of the three is a bad choice, but someone needs to become the main guy.


Alex G. from Iowa writes: OK, I know you aren't done with your B1G unit rankings yet and I don't really know how you predict the teams to finish this year, but this has been bothering me. So far, Iowa has averaged being the 7th best team talent-wise (LB:8, DL:9, OL:7, WR/TE:4, QB:4, RB:11). Who would you have ahead of Iowa this year besides the Michigans, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Nebraska? Or do you think Iowa will be a better team as a WHOLE unit than as individual units?

Brian Bennett: I think you'll find that Iowa does pretty well in our secondary rankings. But to answer your question, I would put Iowa behind both Michigan schools, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin in total talent. I'd also say that Purdue is as good or better at several spots, way ahead on the defensive line and has more experience overall. Other teams like Illinois (defensive line, linebacker) and Northwestern (receivers) have some standout individual units. It makes sense that Iowa, whom I think is the fourth-best team in the Legends Division, would finish around seventh in those rankings. But it's also true that Kirk Ferentz and his staff have been outstanding at developing the talent on hand.


@GopherInWI (via Twitter) writes: There have been some encouraging reports of WRs for the Gophers, how vital is their improvement to MarQueis Gray's success?

Brian Bennett: It's incredibly vital, because although Gray did play receiver two years ago, he probably won't succeed throwing it to himself. Having more weapons around him means Gray won't have to run the ball every down and risk getting injured. Jerry Kill seems to be high on Devin Crawford-Tufts in particular, and Isaac Fruechte seems to be coming around. Minnesota needs a couple more receivers to step up this month.


@huskerwolfe (via Twitter) writes: Will Nebraska s D-line be more suited to hold up against B1G offenses with coach Kaz in charge? Schemes/ Technique wise?

Brian Bennett: There was an interesting article in the Omaha World-Herald today about new D-line coach Rick Kaczenski teaching the tackles brand new techniques. Kaczenski had great success with his defensive lines at Iowa. So I would expect there to be some changes there. But I think the most important difference will come down to much better depth. Nebraska had a lot of injuries up front last year and seems to have more healthy bodies going into this fall, especially in the middle. That has to help. The key, for me, is whether a guy like Eric Martin can become a consistently good pass-rusher from the edge. If so, the Huskers have a chance to be really good on that D-line, and that means good things for the whole team.


The Oregon Duck from Eugene, Ore., writes: So, are you going to be our starting quarterback or not?

Bryan Bennett: I'm working on it, though between Ducks practice and this blog I'm feeling a bit worn out. Then again, if I can do a Penn State-free mailbag, anything is possible.
In late June, a group of Minnesota offensive linemen passed Matt Limegrover in the hallway of Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex and did double-takes.

"Coach?" they asked Limegrover, the Gophers' offensive coordinator and line coach.

"Yeah," he replied. "It's me."

Limegrover started losing weight in January and had dropped 40-50 pounds by the time spring ball ended. But the players didn't notice a change until they went several weeks without seeing him.

"They got a big kick out of that," he said.

As of Thursday morning, Limegrover had shed nearly 120 pounds from his frame -- "It's like 119.8," he reported -- and often draws double-takes when spotted on campus.

Part of his motivation for the weight loss came from how he felt during the 2011 season.

"I felt so run down didn't feel like I was at my best, and felt like that was unfair to the kids I was coaching and the team in general," he said. "I feel like a million bucks out there now, 10 times better than I did at any point the last couple years.

"Now I'm not saying it'll help us win some games, but it can't hurt."

While Limegrover has slimmed down considerably, his offense could be fattening up this fall.

Minnesota struggled offensively in 2011, the first season of the Jerry Kill era, finishing last in the Big Ten in both scoring (18.4 ppg) and total offense (310.3 ypg), and 11th in passing offense (150.3 ypg). The Gophers failed to score 30 or more points in a game and had 17 points or fewer in half of their contests.

A big reason for the futility: no identity.

Brandon Green
Rick Osentoski/US Presswire The Golden Gophers expect Brandon "Mr. Dependable" Green to be a leader in the receiving corps.
"We just weren't sure of who we were as an offense," Limegrover said. "That hurt us because we tried too hard to do all the things we had been doing at Northern Illinois, and this was a different group. It's Year 1 at Minnesota, not Year 4 at Northern Illinois."

Year 2 at Minnesota promises to bring greater production, and Limegrover is encouraged by what he's seen in the first few practices of fall camp. The best signs come from the running backs, a mostly anonymous group in 2011 that loses Duane Bennett (639 rush yards).

Junior college transfer James Gillum, who turned heads this spring, continues to display excellent vision and the power to run between the tackles. Sophomore Devon Wright and freshman K.J. Maye provide speed threats on the edge, while Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb both are healthy and ready to contribute. All the backs have shown a greater grasp of the scheme and the versatility to help in multiple areas.

"Those kids have lifted the energy level of the offense," Limegrover said. "They've given us a spark. They're hitting holes and they're doing things on the perimeter. They're picking up their assignments in the pass game. It's really been a bright spot for us because that's an area I know a lot of people have questions."

The same holds true for the wide receivers. Minnesota loses Da'Jon McKnight, who accounted for 51 of the team's 134 receptions in 2011. No returning player had more than 15 catches a year ago.

Brandon Green, a fifth-year senior who Limegrover calls "Mr. Dependable," leads the group and likely will be quarterback MarQueis Gray's top target. Devin Crawford-Tufts has filled out a bit and "can still run like a deer," Limegrover said. Speedster Marcus Jones is back from a knee injury, and incoming freshmen Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison are already showing the ability to contribute right away. Tight end John Rabe should have a much bigger role in the passing game after recording two touchdown catches last fall.

"We're looking more like a Big Ten receiving crew and Big Ten running backs," Limegrover said. "We've worked to get our tight end position more involved. And especially in the O-line, we're a year bigger and more physical, even though we're still young."

About the only Gophers offensive player who doesn't spark skepticism is senior quarterback MarQueis Gray. He carried the unit for much of the 2011 season, rushing for 966 yards on a team-high 199 carries, and making strides as a passer.

Limegrover is thrilled with Gray's offseason, calling him a "papa bear" for Minnesota's younger players. But Limegrover knows the Gophers must give their signal-caller more help.

"It isn't like basketball where LeBron James, you just clear a side of the floor and let him do his thing," Limegrover said. "We've got to be able to have great support around him. The worst thing we could do for our offense and for this program and for MarQueis Gray is to sit back and go, 'Well, we're going to put it all on his shoulders and we’ll only go as far as he'll take us.' That would be lazy and shortsighted. Every day, we get a little bit closer to everybody feeling good about those other spots.

"That's by far our biggest goal, to get to where we don't have just one bullet in our gun."
On Wednesday, we ranked the top individual wide receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten heading into 2012. So of course that means it's time to look at the position group as a whole throughout the league. Remember, we're weighing past performance heavily here with consideration given to potential.

It's go time.

1. Northwestern: We didn't rank a single Wildcat in our top 10 individual receivers or tight ends, yet we have the group No. 1. Have we lost our minds? Well, maybe. But we really like the depth of this group, even with star Jeremy Ebert off to the pros. Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Venric Mark are all very good, and if Kyle Prater gets eligible this might be the deepest receiving corps in the league. The drawback is the lack of an experienced tight end to take over for Drake Dunsmore, but that's less important in a spread offense.

[+] EnlargeChristian Jones
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireNorthwestern's Christian Jones helps form one of the best wide receiver groups in the Big Ten.
2. Nebraska: The Huskers might not be the most prolific passing team, but they've got a lot of options. Kenny Bell emerged as a real weapon last season, and Quincy Enunwa, Jamal Turner and Tim Marlowe all bring something to the table. Add to that one of the league's top tight end duos in Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton, and this is a strong group.

3. Wisconsin: Bonus points here for star power, as receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen enter the season as the top-rated players at their respective position. There are a lot of other question marks at receiver, though the Badgers have a large cast of candidates. And they're loaded at tight end.

4. Iowa: Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley form one of the best returning receiving tandems in the Big Ten. C.J. Fiedorowicz could become a star at tight end. Marvin McNutt is gone, but James Vandenberg should still have plenty of targets.

5. Purdue: The Boilers bring back three of their top four pass-catchers from a year ago, led by Antavian Edison. They need to stretch the field more, and perhaps star kick returner Raheem Mostert can add more playmaking ability to the group. They have a deep group of tight ends that could be one of the strengths of the offense.

6. Michigan: Junior Hemingway is gone, but the Wolverines are hopeful Roy Roundtree can fill his role. Jeremy Gallon is tiny but manages to make big plays. Michigan will need a third receiver to emerge and for someone to take over for Kevin Koger at tight end. Brandon Moore is the top candidate for that.

7. Penn State: Justin Brown gives the Nittany Lions a solid top option, but the loss of Curtis Drake and Devon Smith hurt the depth. Penn State's tight ends have mostly been anonymous, but that -- along with overall passing game production -- should change with the new staff.

8. Indiana: There's talent here, if the Hoosiers can harness it. Kofi Hughes can be one of the league's top receivers and is complemented by Duwyce Wilson, Cody Latimer and the diminutive Shane Wynn. Ted Bolser had a nice spring and looks ready to be very productive at tight end.

9. Ohio State: By now, you know the stat. No Buckeye had more than 14 catches last year. No matter how many times you hear it, it's still a little hard to believe. At least Ohio State has talented players to work with in guys like Corey Brown, Devin Smith and freshman Michael Thomas. And Jake Stoneburner could thrive under Urban Meyer at tight end. Expect the group's numbers to soar.

10. Illinois: It was almost A.J. Jenkins or bust for the Illini receivers last year. They'll need to find new playmakers in the spread offense. Darius Millines has to step up, along with Spencer Harris. Jon Davis had a promising freshman year at tight end.

11. Michigan State: The Spartans lost their top three receivers and their starting tight end, so no wonder they're so low on this list. The addition of Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett helps, and Andre Sims Jr. and Keith Mumphery had good springs. Still, playing time here is wide open, and true freshmen will get a chance to contribute. Dion Sims has as much physical talent as any Big Ten tight end.

12. Minnesota: Quick, name a Minnesota receiver. If you're not a Gophers fan, you probably are still thinking. This is a group of largely unknown guys who'll have to raise their profile this fall. Brandon Green, Malcolm Moulton and Devin Crawford-Tufts are the leading returning receivers. Transfer Isaac Fruechte and some youngsters will be counted on to contribute. Senior John Rabe brings experience to the tight end spot.
Brandon Green has been MarQueis Gray's roommate for the past two years, and the two Minnesota teammates share many of the same classes. So Green has a close friendship with his quarterback. But even strangers could tell that Gray needs a little more support on the field in 2012.

Gray got much better as the season went along in 2011 and has the potential to develop into a star this year for the Gophers. He carried a heavy workload last year, though, as he led the team in both rushing (966 yards) and carries (199) as well as throwing the ball. In the last two games of the season, he rushed 27 times each.

[+] EnlargeMarqueis Gray
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireThe Gophers are planning to have quarterback MarQueis Gray run less and throw more in the upcoming season.
"We want to cut that down some so he can throw some more," Green said. "I feel like with the running backs and receivers we've got back, we can make plays for him and reduce the load down on him."

That confidence is based more on potential than past evidence this spring. Minnesota's top receiver the past couple of seasons, Da'Jon McKnight, was a senior last year. The leading returning pass catcher is Green, who had just 15 receptions in 2011. The Gophers also lost last year's leading rusher at tailback, departed senior Duane Bennett, and Donnell Kirkwood is injured this spring.

Still, Minnesota -- which lacked a lot of big plays on offense in head coach Jerry Kill's first season -- is hopeful that more options and more comfort at the skill positions will translate into a more diversified attack.

"If we have nothing else, all the way around we have competition," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.

The Gophers need someone to emerge at running back, both to take the pressure off Gray to carry the ball and to turn their rushing game into a two-pronged danger. It's an unproven group this spring, which is a big reason why Minnesota brought in junior college transfer James Gillum, who ran for 1,042 yards at Mississippi Gulf Coast last year.

"The thing about I like about him was that he was down in Mississippi playing against SEC linebackers and defensive ends," Limegrover said. "And no offense to his offensive linemen, but sometimes those are in-state guys. So a lot of times he was making something out of just nothing, and he was still grinding out 130, 140 yards per game.

"I feel like he brings kind of a grit as a guy who can say, 'OK, hand me the ball and I'll do my thing.'"

Kill also pointed to David Cobb, who played sparingly as a true freshman, as a 220-pound standout athlete who could contribute at tailback.

The receiver position has more bodies than this time a year ago but no true leader. But Green, who's now a senior, wants to change that.

"Now that Da'Jon is gone, I've got the most experience," he said. "I feel like it's my time to step up and lead the receivers and do what I need to do to help us win."

Other possibilities in the passing game are Devin Crawford-Tufts, who played as a true freshman in 2011; Marcus Jones, who's coming off an ACL injury; Malcolm Moulton, who played some as a junior-college import last year; and new juco transfer Isaac Fruechte.

"There's a lot of depth, and different receivers can do different things," Green said. "I feel like we've got a lot of weapons where MarQueis can go out and pass the ball around."

If so, his roommate might have less of a burden to carry in 2012.

Big shoes to fill: Minnesota

March, 1, 2012
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To get you ready for spring practice, which kicks off this month, we're taking a look at how each team might fill the roles of two key contributors who are no longer on campus.

Up next, Minnesota.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Kim Royston, S

[+] EnlargeKim Royston
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidReplacing Kim Royston will be a tall order for the Minnesota defense.
Why: Royston was one of few bright spots for a Minnesota defense that struggled mightily for much of the season but finished well. He recorded 123 tackles, the fourth-highest total in the Big Ten and the most on the Gophers by 36 stops. He recorded one of the team's four interceptions on the season and had 3.5 tackles for loss, including a sack, and two pass breakups. Royston's 71 solo tackles were 18 more than any other Gophers player in 2011. He provided leadership for a secondary that lacked it and earned the Carl Eller Award as Minnesota's top defensive player.

Replacement candidates: James Manuel (6-2, 214, Jr.); Derrick Wells (6-foot, 191, Jr.); Jeremy Baltazar (6-foot, 190, Jr.); Michael Carter (5-11, 185, Sr.); Steven Montgomery (5-10, 195, Fr.)

The skinny: The return of cornerback Troy Stoudermire should help Minnesota replace Royston's production, but the team remains extremely unproven at safety. Will this be Manuel's time to shine? Minnesota certainly could use a big season from the junior, who had only 11 tackles in 10 games this past season. Wells had similar numbers (8 tackles, 11 games) in a reserve role but could challenge for a starting spot. Baltazar and Carter both are more natural cornerbacks but could help at nickelback. Montgomery, who isn't afraid to hit people, could be a factor here. The concern is Minnesota lacks many natural safeties and likely needs to have a by-committee approach to the position.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Da'Jon McKnight, WR

Why: Like Royston, McKnight was by far Minnesota's most productive player at his position in 2011. He recorded 51 catches, 35 more than any other Gophers player. He had twice as many touchdown catches (4) and 570 more receiving yards than anyone else on the roster. He led Minnesota in receiving in each of his final two seasons and was one of the more underrated wideouts in the Big Ten. McKnight made 30 starts in his career and was always MarQueis Gray's first option in the passing game.

Replacement candidates: Brandon Green (6-foot, 186, Sr.); Malcolm Moulton (5-11, 186, Jr.); Marcus Jones (5-8, 170, So.); Devin Crawford-Tufts (6-2, 191, So.); Andre McDonald (6-2, 200, Fr.); Jamel Harbison (5-11, 195, Fr.)

The skinny: Wide receiver will be one of the more intriguing positions to watch both in spring practice and in preseason camp when heralded recruits McDonald and Harbison arrive. Green has started 18 games in his career but needs to take his game to the next level. Most of Minnesota's returning players are smaller wideouts, so a bigger player like McDonald could fill in well for McKnight, whose size made him a threat on the outside. There's good speed in the group with players like Jones, who averaged 15.8 yards a catch as a freshman and led the team with 370 kick returns yards and a touchdown.

Q&A: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill

August, 23, 2011
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Jerry Kill is in the middle of another reclamation project. After bolstering programs at Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois and other stops along the way, Kill has brought his turnaround tactics to the Twin Cities. He takes over a Minnesota program that went 3-9 last year and has suffered some roster attrition. Most project the Gophers to finish at the bottom of the Legends division this season.

Unlike his predecessor, Tim Brewster, Kill isn't one to make bold preseason predictions. He's trying to build a program "on concrete, not sand," and the process could take some time.

I checked in with the first-year Gophers coach Tuesday to get his thoughts on preseason prep.

What has been your top priority in camp?

Jerry Kill: The biggest thing is when you take over a new team, you go through spring ball, but they haven't been through two-a-day camp with you. They're not familiar with what you do and how you do things. So getting everybody into a routine and familiar with the way we approach things, it's been a challenge but the kids have handled it pretty well.

Do you feel like you're still starting over?

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
AP Photo/Craig LassigJerry Kill opened up practice for a few weeks because he believes players work harder in public.
JK: It's a new coaching staff, and we haven't been through it. Until we go through a full year, people aren't going to understand what you expect or what you want. You can't get to know somebody in three or four months. It takes time, and trials and errors, so we are starting over. It is what it is. We've never been through two-a-day camp together, we've never been through the first game together, we've never been through a season together. Once you go through it for a year, you can get all the things figured out. That's just the way it is. And you hope you win some games along the way.

You've had quite a few open practices and scrimmages this month. What has the atmosphere been like?

JK: I remember asking Bobby Ross, back when I was coaching Saginaw Valley State and the Detroit Lions were having training camp and Coach Ross was in charge. They had the open practices. I asked him why he did that and he said because players will practice harder. I don't think there's any question about that. So we opened up our first two weeks, it's closed now, but we had 200 people at probably every practice at least. So it's a good atmosphere for the kids to practice. They don't want to be embarrassed when there's people around, so I thought it was a good deal.

You were pleased with MarQueis Gray coming out of the spring. How has he looked to you so far this camp?

JK: He's still going through the learning process, and he will for a while. He's never been in a game at quarterback. He has played some Wildcat or whatever, but he has never been a true quarterback in a game. There's learning going on every game, and it's certainly different from spring ball to two-a-day camp because we're getting closer to game day, and there's a lot more to do at that position. But he's working his tail end off to do something that's pretty darn near impossible, to go from a wide receiver to a quarterback.

He's worked hard at it, we're making progress. Will we be real complicated early in the year? We can't be. We've basically got four freshmen quarterbacks. So we'll have to simplify things. He's athletic enough to do some special things once we get him in the right position. He's what you look for in a quarterback and he's got the skill set to do it, but the other people around him have got to do a good job also.

How many young players do you anticipate playing, true freshmen and redshirt freshmen?

JK: Too many. It is what it is. We've got a situation where we've got one recruiting class that only has five players left. There's a reason things are open. We've got one senior running back [Duane Bennett] and four freshmen, whether they're redshirt or true freshmen. We've got one senior wide receiver [Da'Jon McKnight] and the rest are freshmen and a junior college player. Offensive line, we've got three seniors and the rest of them are freshmen and redshirt freshmen, a couple sophomores sprinkled in there. So it's a young football team.

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