Minnesota Football 2013 Season Preview: The Turn

Scott Halleran

Years 3 and 4 are "the Turn Years." If a coach is going to break through whatever program ceiling, it generally occurs in the third or fourth year of his tenure... or not at all.

It's something every college football fan, especially a rube following a program down on it's recent luck, knows of and points to: The Year 3/4 Turn.

You see, years 3 and 4 of a head coach's tenure are generally when fruits of their labor arrive in the win/loss column. All the time recruiting, developing and changing a culture builds towards this moment, where coaches finally get the chance to field their vision for the program with players and schemes more fitting of their strengths versus the imbalances created by transitory seasons.

By year 3 or 4, coaches have most of the pieces in place. Then, and only then, do you see "The Turn."

Statistics could state it more empirically, though in this case, anecdotes work just fine.

Coach/School Year 3/4
Hayden Fry - Iowa Rose Bowl berth in Year 3
Barry Alvarez - Wisconsin Rose Bowl Champion in Year 4
Gary Barnett - Northwestern Rose Bowl Champion in Year 4
Glen Mason - Minnesota 1st bowl appearance in 13 years, 1st winning B1G record in 9 years
Kirk Ferentz - Iowa Bowl game in Year 3, Big Ten Co-Champ in Year 4
Ron Zook - Illinois Rose Bowl berth in Year 3
Mark Dantonio - MSU Big Ten Co-Champ in Year 4


"The Turn" doesn’t apply to simply moribund programs either.

Coach/School Year 3/4
Nick Saban - LSU/Alabama National Champion at LSU in Year 4 at LSU, Alabama in Year 3.
Les Miles - LSU National Champion in Year 3
Brian Kelly - CMU/Cincy/Notre Dame MAC Champion in Year 3, Big East Champion in Year 3, BCS title game appearance in Year 3.


And, of course, there’s this:

Coach/School Year 3/4
Jerry Kill - SIU/NIU Gateway Conference Champion in Year 3 at Southern Illinois, MAC West Champion in Year 3 at Northern Illinois.

A common denominator of those squads making the turn? Talented, veteran offensive lines and upperclassmen quarterbacks.

School/Year QB/Class
Wisconsin - 1993 Darrell Bevell - Jr.
Northwestern - 1995 Steve Schnur - Jr.
Iowa - 2002 Brad Banks - Sr.
Minnesota - 1999 Billy Cockerham - Sr.
Michigan State - 2010 Kirk Cousins - Jr.

Only a sophomore, Philip Nelson doesn't seem to fit the mold.

Another shared factor? The element of surprise. In each of those "Turn" seasons, few pundits saw that particular team racing out to a conference championship or program defining season. Minnesota winning any more than 7 regular season games would constitute such a shock among the national and regional media considering the Gophers are pegged around the 6 win mark (again) and picked near the bottom of the Legends division.

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Still, one can’t help but think that if Kill’s program magic will begin manifesting itself in the win column, it would first appear this upcoming season. Signs of progress, such as competing with the likes of Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin or Michigan State into the 4th quarter and putting the team in place for an upset. Or perhaps it arrives in a more general manner, like playing with greater consistency throughout the season, especially on the road. Whatever the signs, Gopher fans should start to see The Turn in the upcoming season, or they likely won’t at all.

The timing would be nearly perfect for such an upswing. Norwood Teague has just unveiled his audacious $190M master facilities needs assessment, an ambitious plan that could use a shot in the arm to kickstart a major capital fundraising campaign. Minnesota’s future B1G schedules leap up a notch in difficulty, yet there’s seemingly more uncertainty surrounding many of the opponents on the 2013 schedule than usual.

If the Gophers are to make that Turn upward, they will do so from talented players stepping up into bigger roles on the brightest of stages; Players such as Zac Epping, Josh Campion, Donnell Kirkwood, Brock Vereen, Derrick Wells and Cedric Thompson have been universally overlooked on preseason watch lists, though they comprise the leadership core of the team. Young players like Thieren Cockran, Maxx Williams, Roderick Williams, Eric Murray and K.J. Maye are expected to take on more responsibility this year. Ra’shede Hageman is a force, named to virtually every preseason watch list and the Gophers’ best NFL prospect since Eric Decker.

What will it take for the 2013 Gophers to replicate the out-of-nowhere run of the 1999 team?

Then, of course, there is Nelson -- the unquestioned key to how far the Gophers climb in Jerry Kill’s third year. Nelson oscillated between flashes of brilliance (Purdue), game managing competence (Texas Tech and Illinois) and downright misery (Nebraska and Michigan State). In order for the Gophers to make the leap into the next tier of the B1G, Nelson will have to regain some of the form he displayed at Mankato West as Minnesota’s all-time leading high school passer. According to noted experts though, the future is in good hands:

Even the most skeptical of Minnesota sporting critics are on board with Mankato Jesus:

P.S.: Good move giving a shot to Phil Nelson today in Camp Randall. The Mankato kid is going to be a player.

Aside from the age of Minnesota's starting quarterback, there are several parallels between the 1998 and 2012 iterations of Gophers. Of course, Glen Mason's crew surprised the entire conference the following year on route to winning Coach of the Year honors and a season that turned around the recent fortunes of the program.

Tyrone Carter was an All-American and First Team All-Big Ten selection in 1998, while Thomas Hamner was Second Team All-Big Ten. Hamner finished the year with 838 yards on 4.0 YPR and 4 TDs.

By 1999, 6 Gophers were named to First or Second Team All-Big Ten honors.

In 1998, Glen Mason’s squad missed bowl eligibility by 2 games. The Gophers lost to Michigan and Indiana by a combined 6 points that season. They went 2-6 in conference play.

By 1999, Minnesota lost a total of 4 games by a combined 15 points, rolling out to a 5-3 Big Ten record.

Contrast 1998 with 2012. Donnell Kirkwood finished the year with 925 yards on 4.3 YPR and 6 TDs, on nearly the same amount of carries (218 vs. 209). The 2012 Minnesota squad didn’t have an All-American or All-Conference player, yet they did have a top NFL prospect anchoring the middle of the defense in Ra’shede Hageman.

In 2012, the Gophers lost two games by a combined 11 points, games in which special teams gaffes lead to the critical score that ultimately was the difference. They trailed Wisconsin 14-6, Michigan 14-7 and Michigan State 13-7 at the respective halves before depth and attrition took their toll in each of those games. They would sustain multiple injuries at offensive line, quarterback and wide receiver throughout the conference slate.

You can even see the statistical progression of Kill's first two seasons compared to Glen Mason's, and what remarkably similar tracts each team followed:

1997 Rk 1998 Rk 2011 Rk 2012 Rk
Total Defense 368.3 63 349.1 47 403.1 77 358.6 33
Scoring Defense 27.8 75 22.6 40 31.7 93 24.7 45
Rushing Defense 133.9 43 103.7 13 186.4 91 172.0 72
Passing Defense 234.3 91 245.4 n/a 216.7 49 186.6 12
Total Offense 288.5 105 311.7 92 310.3 110 321.4 108
Scoring Offense 19.8 88 20.8 79 18.4 111 22.1 94
Rushing Offense 130.9 76 140.6 72 160.0 56 151.9 67
Passing Offense 157.6 90 171.1 80 150.3 109 169.5 105
Turnover Margin -.17 69 -.09 55 -.67 100 -.15 69

Both teams holistically improved in Year 2, placing better season-over-season numbers in virtually every category. Rushing and passing offenses are virtually identical, while each team was exceptionally good at one aspect on defense -- run D for the 1998 squad, as opposed to pass D for the 2012 group. Wholesale improvement came faster on defense than offense, which saw incrementally better output in Year 2.

Now, Year 3:

1999 Rk
Total Defense 313.4 22
Scoring Defense 15.6 8
Rushing Defense 138.7 47
Passing Defense 174.7 10
Total Offense 415.4 24
Scoring Offense 31.6 20
Rushing Offense 239.1 11
Passing Offense 176.3 84
Turnover Margin .00 57


1999 was the year Glen Mason put everything together. He had an experienced senior quarterback and talented running back, a veteran offensive line, a superstar on defense and a tenacious defensive line; the OL and DL were easily the deepest and best they'd been in the Mason era. They were dramatically better in two key areas that had plagued them in Mason's first two seasons: 1) passing defense and 2) rushing offense.

What will it take for the 2013 Gophers to replicate the out-of-nowhere run of the 1999 team? First, Nelson must emulate the steady hand of Billy Cockerham and not only avoid the type of critical mistakes me made last season but also keep the offense churning in difficult situations (3rd down). Second, the defense must take another step forward -- especially against the run. Third, the offensive line must lead the way up front and pave the way for Kirkwood to have a big year.

Still, the similarities are there. Jerry Kill has his deepest and most talented groupings along the offensive and defensive lines since he arrived in Minneapolis. He has a legitimate workhorse back in Kirkwood. Hageman is poised for a huge senior year that should propel him up NFL draft boards. The secondary has a talented, veteran core returning from a very good 2012 season.

Nelson :: Cockerham?

Kirkwood :: Hamner?

Hageman :: Tyrone Carter?

Epping :: Ben Hamilton?

Cockran :: Karon Riley?

Derrick Wells :: Willie Middlebrooks?

Andre McDonald :: Ron Johnson?

Brock Vereen :: Jack Brewer?

Damien Wilson :: Sean Hoffman?

If the Gophers are to make the same upward turn, the above listed 2013 players will have to perform like their 1999 analogs. On the surface, this sounds like a ridiculous premise. Still, it's not that ridiculous, and certainly no less asinine than optimists would have appeared back in the summer of '99. The Gophers have talent, moreso than any previous season of the Kill era. Whether or not that talent can manifest in a breakthrough season will depend on these key figures, though a huge part of fan confidence is banking on Kill's track record at similar points in a program's arc.

Ultimately, that's what everyone is looking for in the upcoming season: signs of The Turn. Whether that occurs this year or the next, however, may not be immediately known.

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