When you end the season on a high note it is natural to start looking ahead to next season with renewed home and optimism (at least it is natural for me). So why wait till spring football or July positional previews to start looking at the 2012 Gopher football team?
Based on Kill's history of rebuilding at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois typically there is a fairly dramatic increase in offensive production from year 1 to year 2. At Southern offensive rushing went up 70% from year 1 to year 2 and scoring went up 146%! I'm not expecting those kind of improvements next year but that is pretty remarkable. At Northern he went up 14% in rushing and nearly 16% in scoring. Assuming the modest NIU improvements that would put us about 5th in the Big Ten in rushing but still lagging around 9th or 10th in scoring.
My guess here is that rushing improves by around 12% putting us at about 180 yards rushing per game. Passing will also improve just because of the maturation and improvement from Gray to about 180 yards passing per game. And scoring will improve by quite a bit more. We may only score about 25 points per game next year but that would be about a 30% improvement over this year! That should be enough to win 2 or 3 more games, obviously depending on schedule, and it should make us more competitive in all of our games.
- Gone: nobody
Returning: MarQueis Gray finally established himself as the unquestionable starter and will be returning to lead the Gophers in his senior season. Max Shortell was good for a true freshman and will certainly be a reliable back-up in 2012. This is a position of strength for the Gophers this year and Gray will certainly be the one garnering most of the headlines heading into the fall.
- Incoming: Philip Nelson is arguably the prize of the 2012 recruiting class. Most believe he will redshirt this coming fall and then have every opportunity to compete with Shortell in the fall of 2013 to be the starter. The assumption is that Nelson is a better for Kill's offense than Shortell because of being a bit more athletic. But that decision won't have to be made by us for 18 months or so.
2012: This is Gray's team with Shortell backing him up. Having some consistency at QB will be incredibly valuable for this team. Gray's comfort with the offense seemed to come through beginning with the Iowa game and hopefully the playbook can now be expanded in his senior year.
Gone: Duane Bennett was a 2,126 yard rusher for his career with 22 total touchdowns. Duane was incredibly valuable as a leader on this team and as a guy who made plays on special teams. Bennett was a well-liked guy on the team and will be missed but his production as a back was never dominant.
Returning: Donnell Kirkwood is a bowling ball who rumbles forward and occasionally knocks defenders on their butts. He does not project to earn the bulk of the carries left behind by Bennett's graduation, but Kirkwood is a hard runner who gets some tough yards. David Cobb was a true freshman who was injured or buried on the depth chart for most of the season. Also does not figure to be a featured back in the 2012 offense but he may surprise if healthy and has a good spring.
Incoming: Roderick Williams Jr is a back out of Lewisville, Texas who may be the feature back as a true freshman. Williams Jr rushed for just under 750 yards and 8 TDs as a senior on a team that went 2-8. James Gillum is a JUCO back coming into the program who figures to be a third-down type back. Gillum finished his JUCO season with nearly 1,300 yards and 16 TDs.
2012: Who gets the majority of the carries in 2012 is probably the biggest question mark facing the offense. Any one of the four backs mentioned could conceivably be the feature back. I'm not worried in the sense that we are screwed and void of any talent, but I really am not that worried because Gray will be leading the team in rushing next year. I don't anticipate that we will have any game-breakers, defenses will be focusing on Gray, but hopefully an improved offensive line will open up some holes that any capable back can run through to keep defenses honest.
Gone: Da'Jon McKnight is the only receiver not returning next year. Clearly he was our most talented and dynamic receiver, and had a very good year considering he was a throw-in recruit to try and land the rest of the Skyline-4. McKnight didn't play any football before his JR year of high school and now will likely have a shot at making an NFL roster. Many think his SR year was a bit disappointing but he did improve on his receptions and yards from his breakout JR season. McKnight will be missed.
Returning: Brandon Green, Devin Crawford-Tufts, Malcolm Moulton and Marcus Jones are all returning but Green is led this group in receptions last year with just 15. Green was consistent last year getting a catch or two every game except the NDSU game and scored a nice touchdown in the USC game. His problem has always been getting separation from defenders but he is a solid possession guy who is reliable though not a game-breaker. DCT's coming out party didn't happen until the Iowa game. The speedy freshmen showed some promise in the 2nd half of the year. Moulton looked pretty good at times during the year and seemed to have a knack for getting open. Unfortunately he also had a knack for dropping balls, correct that and he could be a real weapon next year. Jones is a perfect slot receiver for this offense. He is a dynamic player who unfortunately was injured for the last 5 games of the year.
Incoming: Isaac Fruechte is a JUCO transfer coming in with three years of eligibility. He is a big receiver (6-3, 220) who seems to be quite excited to start his Gopher career. Jamel Harbison is an incoming freshman who is still being hotly pursued inspite of his comittment to Minnesota. Some believe Harbison is one of the best kids in the incoming class.
2012: We are returning four guys who saw significant action this past year. Moulton and Green played virtually every game. Crawford-Tufts and Jones were true freshmen who were a certainly a part of the the offensive game plan. McKnight's 51 receptions are a lot to fill but I expect to see an increased role for DCT and if Moulton can shake the dropsies I think he'll have a bigger season too. Jones has a role as the slot guy and returner, if healthy he should have around 25 receptions. Overall this is a solid group that has a couple guys with potential to be more impact players.
Gone: Eric Lair and Collin McGarry were solid tight ends for the Gophers this year. Lair's offensive production was less than anticipated but he was a good player. McGarry wasn't expected to contribute much at all but his 16 catches and 2 TDs were more than expected. He too was solid and both will be missed.
Returning: John Rabe will be the lone senior TE next year. Rabe's claim to fame is that half of his catches are for TDs. If he could just up his production from four catches on the season that might be a significant ratio. The Iowa native should see more snaps next year as a solid blocker and receiving TE. Drew Goodger was the true freshman who moved from DE to TE. Goodger had 2 catches last year and should see his role increase in 2012.
Incoming: Maxx Williams is the Waconia kid who figures to have a shot at playing time as a freshman. He has decent size at 6-4 and 225 lbs and he'll bring some athleticism. Williams played some QB, TE, WR, S, MLB, P and K for Waconia. Samad Hinds is a tall, athletic kid who will need to add some bulk before he becomes a pass-catching TE threat in the Big Ten.
2012: Rabe, Goodger and Williams are the guys expected to see time on the field as the Gopher TEs next year.
Gone: Ryan Wynn, Chris Bunders and Ryan Orton. The senior trio struggled early in the season but eventually, after some juggling & jiggering they started to play pretty well. Bunders enjoyed the best season of the group after he moved to RT to replace the injured Jimmy Gjere. All three played a lot over their four years and you always notice when you lose three seniors along the OL. None were dominant but their leadership and experience will be missed.
Returning: Fortunately we return a lot along the line. Ed Olson will be entering his third year starting at LT. He will need to take some steps forward but he has been pretty good in his young career. Tommy Olson will be the starter at LG after starting there as a true freshman and performing well. RG was filled this year by Zac Epping when Bunders moved to tackle. The redshirt freshman got some valuable experience and is the presumed starter for 2012. Josh Campion missed the year due to injury but I'm guessing he'll be in the mix to start at G or maybe even C. Sophomore, Zach Mottla also got a lot of snaps at C when Wynn was injured. And finally Jimmy Gjere started the year as the starting RT before concussion issues derailed his freshman year.
Incoming: Jonah Pirsig is a big tackle from Blue Earth who chose the Gophers over offers from most of the Big Ten and Auburn. He is 6-9 and 300 lbs so he has the size to compete right away, but should benefit from redshirting and adding strength. Isaac Hayes projects to be an inside lineman. He too could be a very good lineman for the Gophers but will likely need a redshirt year.
- 2012: We have a lot returning and should have a lot of depth. We have four kids coming off their redshirt year to go along with several who saw playing time in 2011. Both tackle spots and LG are set for 2012 (and 2013). Center and RG are going to be up for grabs but there will be no shortage of competition for those starting spots. I expect to see this unit to make big strides next year and become a relative strength.
The defense certainly improved throughout the 2011 season. Particularly the pass rush and run defense became more reliable. Most of the increase in sack numbers came from the LBs but the defensive line did a better job of at least getting pressure on the opposing QB. The secondary was still an issue but I think we saw some progress from a couple guys and it is obvious that a major focus with the 2012 recruiting class is to bring in a couple DBs who can contribute right away. The defense was giving up an average of 35.8 points per game through their first seven games. They finished the final five games allowing just 26.4. That is not a dominant number but it is certainly more manageable than 35+. I do not expect a dramatic defensive improvement next year, I just expect to see more similar numbers to what we saw in the final five games which should bring our overall numbers down a bit from the 2011 totals.
- Gone: nobody
- Returning: Michael Amaefula, Ben Perry, D.L. Wilhite, Kendal Gregory-McGhee and Matt Garin saw basically all of the snaps at end this past year and they all return. Down the stretch it was the true freshman Amaefula and the redshirt freshman Perry who were the starters with Wilhite getting a lot of snaps in the rotation. Those three combined for 5.5 sacks and 48 tackles. KDM and Garin also contributed plenty with each having 1.5 sacks.
- Incoming: Alex Keith a 6-5 end out of Missouri who had offers from Northern Iowa and Missouri State with some interest from a few Big 12 schools. Expect a redshirt year for Keith.
- 2012: With everyone returning and Thieran Cockran coming off his redshirt year this group should at the very least be stable. Their production certainly increased as the year went on and the freshmen improved quite a bit to give us a young tandem. Amaefula came out of nowhere to be starting as a true freshman. Ben Perry, you may remember, came out of a Texas powerhouse yet saw little to no recruitment out of high school and was starting this year after redshirting last. Those two supplanted the two presumed starters of Garin and Wilhite. Very nice surprises and hopefully all of these guys continue to develop for next fall.
- Gone: Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey were both solid big men in the middle. They were easily our two most productive defensive linemen. I am concerned that we are graduating them but I am much more concerned that we have very little returning to replace them.
- Returning: Ra'Shede Hageman is the one guy that gives me a little bit of comfort heading into 2012. Shede finished the season strong and looks to finally be on the path to being a productive and reliable starter on a Big Ten defense. Eric Jacques was also in the rotation this past year and he is the most likely guy to be starting unless one of the ends moves inside.
- Incoming: I highly doubt that the coaching staff is finished recruiting this position. I fully expect that a JUCO tackle will make his way to the Gopher commitment list before this class is finished. In addition to the potential addition we are also bringing in Jordan Hinojosa from Miami and Scott Epke from Texas.
- 2012: This is going to be a dangerously thin and potentially very weak unit in 2012. I really was pleased with Hageman by the end of the season. He was a guy who seemed to be floundering for most of his Gopher career and now appears to be flourishing. He is a physical specimen and I think he will have a big year in 2012. After that it is time for someone to step up. As mentioned a JUCO player will likely be brought in, but who knows if that player will be starter material or not. Jacques got some time this past year and maybe with an offseason to prepare he'll be legit. This is an area of question on the D.
- Gone: Gary Tinsley who finished his Gopher career with 198 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 1 INT. He had a solid senior season and two years as the starting MLB. I am happy that we are only losing one linebacker but Tinsley was pretty good replacing Lee Campbell after the 2009 season.
- Returning: Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis return at both OLB positions. Brendan Beal has been with the team for two years and has yet to play a snap but he will be returning from injury and hopefully will anchor the MLB position. Cooper is one of the guys on defense who really seemed to improve as the year went along. He is the fastest guy on the team and has accumulated some decent career numbers heading into his senior season (188 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 13 TFLs). Rallis was a surprise starter last year as a sophomore and has been very solid. Beal was formerly a big-time Florida recruit who some thought might challenge Tinsley to be the starter this year, but a knee injury kept him off the field for all 12 weeks. Spencer Reeves and Aaron Hill also saw significant playing time this year. Lamonte Edwards, Dwayne Mitchell, Brent Singleton, Quinn Bauducco, Jephte Matilus and Peter Westerhause are all going to be Sophs or redshirt freshmen who have a chance to get themselves into the LB rotation.
- Incoming: Josh Ballesteros, Brian Nicholson, Drew Davis and Jack Lynn are all currently committed to the Gophers. Those four guys, plus possibly another one still considering the Gophers, plus six FR or SO listed above means we have a ton of young linebackers. I would be shocked if any of the four or five incoming freshman do anything other than redshirt next year.
- 2012: As mentioned we have a ton of young linebackers. This and QB might be the only positions that I have very little concern with now or in the near future. This position has some talented, experienced guys who will be relied upon in 2012 (Cooper, Rallis, Hill, Beal, Reeves) and several young guys who will have time to develop strength and learn the position. This was the strength of the 2011 D and I anticipate it will be a strength in 2012 as well. We aren't LB-U, I'm just not concerned that this unit will be a weakness.
- Gone: Johnny Johnson and very likely Troy Stoudermire. Stoudermire was our best corner over the last two seasons but unfortunately spent nearly 8 games of his senior season sidelined with a broken arm. There is slim hope that he will be granted a medical hardship waiver and be he'll be back for the 2012 season. That would be awesome news but he did technically participate in 5 games so this one might be a tough sell to the NCAA.
- Returning: Brock Vereen and Kyle Henderson were our starting corners for most of the year and will both be returning. Michael Carter saw significant action sometimes and was MIA others but he the former 4-star corner will also be returning. Cedric Thopmson saw some action as a true freshman, Tyrone Bouie will be s sophomore and Steven Montgomery will be ready to play after redshirting this year.
- Incoming: Dinero Moss and Eric Murray are currently the only two incoming freshmen and hopefully they will both be able to redshirt. Jeremy Baltazar and Briean Boddy are incoming JUCO corners, I would not at all be surprised to see another corner commit to the Gophers in the near future.
- 2012: This is an area of great concern. This is a unit lacking in overall talent and depth. Returning our starters and primary backup is a good thing, but this unit still needs a talent upgrade. If Stoudermire is able to return I feel much better about this group for 2012 and then have the same concerns again in 2013. Stoudermire and Vereen starting with Henderson and Carter and Thompson backing them up would be OK. Maybe Baltazar will come in and make an immediate impact for two years, that would be a huge blessing for this defense.
- Gone: Kim Royston is maybe the biggest loss of this
graduating classclass of players with eligibility expiring. He led the team in tackles and made some big plays, we were fortunate that he was granted that rare 6th year. Christyn Lewis is also graduating and he was a starter at FS for most of the year. Lewis frustrated Gopher fans with missed tackles and guys getting behind him or by him for big plays. There had to be other options right? Well apparently not, but we'll find out in 2012. Shady Solomon will also be graduating.
- Returning: Kenny Watkins and James Manuel were two Brewster recruits who received lot of August praise as true freshmen. Neither has played their way onto the field yet but they will likely be relied upon in 2012. Manuel played in 10 games this year earning 11 tackles.
- Incoming: Nick Rallis is currently the only safety commit but this is another area that may get a shot in the arm from the JUCO ranks. I do not expect that he will be contributing as a true freshman, even if this is a thin unit.
- 2012: This one could get ugly. I am trusting that the staff has something figured out for next year, or at the very least another offseason for Watkins and Manuel will put them in position to be solid contributors next season. There is also the possibility that this position gets one of the corners to move over and earn a starting spot. Possibly Thompson or Montgomery, but I'm just speculating.
I am not expecting that 2012 is going to be the big turn around year where we leap from 3 wins to 8, but I do think this team is in position to be better than the one that started the 2011 season. Not making any win predictions yet, but this team will be better. Areas of strength will be QB, LB, OL and I believe DE and getting Stoudermire back for another year would be a huge shot in the arm for the defense.
Should be a fun year with Gray as a senior leading the team.