Minnesota Gopher Football 2011 preview: What will the offense look like?

Just like we've done with the defense, next week we'll be previewing the 2011 Gopher offense by position, and asking whether we'll see an upgrade or downgrade from what we saw in 2010. Thus far, you thought (and I agree) that the defensive positions should see an upgrade across the board (well defensive tackle was neutral), with a lot of returning players and an excellent coaching staff. Will it be the same story on offense? 2010's offense wasn't great- and neither was 2009, or 2008 or 2007 for that matter. The Gophers struggled to move the ball and score points in their four seasons under Tim Brewster, mostly thanks to his revolving door of offensive coordinators. I, like a lot of you, believe the offense COULD have made strides under Brew's first OC Mike Dunbar, who ran a spread offense in 2007 and 2008. However, due to- well there's a lot of rumored reasons- so for whatever you believe the cause to be Brewster showed him the door. In 2009 the offense suffered under Jedd Fisch's complicated pro-style offense with a playbook the size and depth of Lake Superior, and in 2010 things weren't much better with Jeff Horton.

From 2007-2010 the Gophers- compared to the rest of the Big Ten- never ranked higher than 9th in scoring offense, and 6th in total offense (that was in Dunbar's first year. In the other three they were either last or second last). This was a team who always TRIED to be a run-first team, but never had much success: in the Big Ten they were 10th in rushing offense in 2010, last in 2009 AND 2008, and 7th in 2007. 2007 was the only year of the Brewster Era they averaged over 4 yards a carry (the other three they weren't even close) and never ran for more than 2000 yards in a season.

The passing offense was all over the place as well, as departed QB Adam Weber started all four seasons in at least three different systems. In his two seasons under Dunbar, Weber led the Gophers to the third and fourth most passing offenses in the Big Ten (which happens when you're behind a lot), but slumped to 8th in 2009 and 2010. Even worse, the team's pass efficiency rating, which was middle of the pack under Dunbar, fell through the floor in 2009 and 2010.

Thankfully, all of that should change under Jerry Kill and OC Matt Limegrover...

...who have had success moving the ball and scoring points everywhere they've been. That's not to say it's going to be an overnight success, however. In fact, I'd be shocked (and impressed. And amazed) if the Gophers were as efficient and effective in 2011 as Northern Illinois was in Kill's last season there, but there's a good chance they'll at least be better than the offense the Gophers had in 2010. There will be some bumps in the proverbial road to a good offense in this new system, but at least with Kill, we know there's a plan and a proven record of getting results with it.

Here are the numbers from his three seasons at NIU (click on the year for the full season's statistics):

NORTHERN ILLINOIS 2008 2009 2010
Pts Per Game 24.2 28.6 38
FIRST DOWNS 230 232 303
Rushing 116 127 154
Passing 99 87 132
Penalty 15 18 17
RUSHING YARDS 2226 2537 3645
Yards 2407 2829 3855
Yards lost 181 292 210
Attempts 501 531 581
Avg per rush 4.4 4.8 6.3
Ave per game 171.2 195.2 260.4
TD's 22 27 42
PASSING YARDS 2130 1950 2655
Comp-Att 176-312 168-274 208-329
Comp % 56.4% 61.3% 63.2%
Avg per pass 6.8 7.1 8.1
Avg per catch 12.1 11.6 12.8
Avg per game 163.8 150 189.6
TD's 13 14 23
INT 12 8 8
Pass Efficiency 119.8 132.1 149.2
TOTAL OFFENSE 4356 4487

6300

As you can see, this is a coaching staff that likes to run the football and WILL run the football. Their worst rushing season in 2008 had almost the same yards per carry (4.4) as the Gophers BEST season under Brewster in 2007 (4.5), and their rushing yardage totals in all years dwarf anything we saw from 2007-2010 under Brew. Yes, Kill was doing his work in the MAC while the Gophers were up against the Big Ten, but NIU also committed to the run and stuck with it, with at least a 1.5:1 run/pass ratio in all three seasons.

The rush attempts increased slightly every season and the passing attempts varied a little bit but not greatly, yet the numbers and averages for almost every category increased each season. The more time the players got in this offense, the more efficient they became, culminating in the 2010 Husky offense that flat destroyed the Gophers in Minneapolis last year.

A big part of that was QB Chandler Harnish, who started all three seasons for Kill and Limegrover. We'll talk about him and his progression more on Monday in the QB preview, because I think it's a good barometer for MarQueis Gray's development in this offense.

Gray is not going to be asked to throw the ball a ton this fall, and certainly nowhere near as much as Weber was asked to in his first year as a starting QB, when he had to make almost 450 attempts in 2007. The Huskies as a TEAM barely attempted 300 in their first season with the new offense, and even less the second year. Obviously how much the Gophers can run the ball will not only depend upon how effective they are, but also how much the Gophers can stay in the game. If USC goes up by 17 in the third quarter next Saturday, the Gophs aren't going to have the luxury of pounding the rock. But the strategy remains that Kill and Limegrover will establish the run as much as possible, which plays into the Gophers' strength on offense with the uber-athletic Gray, a stable of young running backs (there are five running backs who could see carries this fall. I remain convinced and confident we'll find at least two or three of them who can be successful), and a solid offensive line.

In 2008 Harnish led NIU in rushing attempts, yards, and TD's, and we could see something similar given Gray's gifts as an athlete and runner. Also similar is that the coaches used a running back-by-commitee approach, as in 2008 FIVE other players besides Harnish had at least 39 carries, with two of those guys- Me'co Brown and a young Chad Spann- getting 110 and 88 carries respectively. I could definitely see Duane Bennett getting as many carries as he can handle, but the young guys getting opportunities as well. Limegrover said at the end of the spring five running backs could and probably will see carries this fall, and when you look at how many backs he used in the 2008 season at NIU, he's not kidding.

How well the line adjusts to the new scheme will be a huge factor, but the coaches have said in fall camp they not only like the quality, but the depth on the o-line, so I'm liking our chances of actually having a productive and functioning offensive line. That will lay the foundation and should open some holes and give Q some time to pass, but how the running back situation shakes out and how well Gray develops as a passer will decide how quickly this offense progresses and how productive it can be. While I'm not expecting to see the production of Kill's 2010 Huskies (38 points per game and over 6300 yards total offense! holy **** that's a lot of offense!), it's not a stretch to believe the 2011 Gophers could have more success running the ball than we've seen in Minnesota since Glen Mason was here. And that's just in year one under Kill and Limegrover; imagine would we could see by year three.

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