For the Gophers to improve dramatically in Jerry Kill's second season and if they are to reach that magical 6-win plateau they are going to need some guys to dramatically improve. We need some guys to give us significantly more production than we thought we were going to receive, making this team better than we had hoped.
We know what we are going to get out of guys like MarQueis Gray, Keanon Cooper, Ed Olson, Mike Rallis and Troy Stoudermire. These guys are not perfect football players but they are already who we are going to have to lean on. They may surprise and play well enough to earn themselves some Big Ten recognition by the end of the season. Ed Olson has room to improve, Mike Rallis is moving to a new positions and Troy Stoudermire is coming off an injury. But these guys are already going to be the leaders on this team and the guys we are counting on.
What I want to focus on are four players, two on offense and two on defense, who need to step up their game in significant ways. Four guys who if they learn to play at a high level, giving us consistent production this team could rack up some wins and get us to a bowl game.
James Gillum - this one is kind of the obvious one, imo. The Gophers haven't had a feature back in several seasons. Quarterback is set and the offensive line has the ability to be solid. But we are lacking in a reliable running back who can carry the load on the ground. Gillum was the guy brought in to give the running game an immediate boost. But is he talented enough to be a good Big Ten back?
If Gillum can be the man who carries the ball 220 times for around 1,000 yards that will be a tremendous boost for the offense. That will mean at least 25 fewer carries for Gray and it will mean the defense will have to pay attention to the running back on the read-option plays we are sure to see plenty of. As I've said numerous times, year two of Kill's rebuilding at every stop has seen a significant increase in rushing yardage. Gillum will be the guy most likely to be the feature back. If he takes this opportunity and runs with it (sorry) this offense will be much more balanced.
Devin Crawford-Tufts - My other offensive pick had to go to a receiver and maybe this is another obvious one. There are a handful of receivers I could have chosen but DCT is the one I hope to see emerge. He was thrown to the wolves as a true freshman and saw the field sparingly through the first six games of the year contributing just 2 receptions. But in the second half of the year Crawford-Tufts was seeing the field more often and started to make some plays. Most notably he made two big plays in the game where we beat Iowa (again), including this 39-yard catch in the third quarter.
But more than 2 catches per game is going to be needed out of Crawford-Tufts. Can he consistently create separation from defenders? Can he make big possession type catches when needed? And can he stretch defenses with his speed which should open up more underneath? Year two for DCT should be one where we see a more complete receiver. If he can really step up his game and become a go-to receiver, then we the makings of an offense with multiple weapons! This is the guy that I believe we most need to step up in the receiving game. IF DCT becomes a threat then things open up underneath for Marcus Jones, then Green & Moulton can work the opposite side of the field and then Harbison and McDonald can redshirt.
Ra'Shede Hageman is the defensive lineman I most want to see step up. It is hard to believe that he is still not a senior as it feels like he has been here for several seasons. But Hageman is a physical specimen, a beast who is incredibly gifted. This is the year he needs to turn those tools into production on the field. Of the guys listed in this post Hageman has been the most productive to date but we need more.
Last year Shede played in all 12 games recording 13 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 forced fumble and 2 sacks. I'd like to see his tackles and his sacks triple this year, or more. He needs to plug the middle of the line, he needs to put pressure on the QB and he needs to be a disruptive force defensively. I'm not just looking for stats here, I want to see Hageman be one of our best defensive players, a guy that offenses have to account for. Hageman requiring a double-team because he'll blow up RBs in the backfield or bring down QBs who don't get rid of the ball quickly will provide more opportunity for those around him. Our defensive ends are unproven, they could use one less blocker in their way. And Mike Rallis might be able to make more plays if Hageman is a beast in the middle.
Brock Vereen had a very good sophomore season, but I'm really looking forward to him having a huge year as a junior. Starting all 12 games, recording 67 tackles, breaking up 5 passes and intercepting one are all very good numbers. He certainly had an impact last year. But Vereen is being moved to safety this year and the Gophers need some improved play from their safeties. The junior from California has good cover skills and he will need to provide great over-the-top support to our corners.
With two years under his belt, it is time for Vereen to take that next step from being a starting caliber defender to a play-maker, a guy that the defense can rely upon to consistently do the things asked of him and maybe a little more. There are a lot of question marks in our secondary and Vereen needs to be the answer to one of them.
There are several other starters who could make this list and you wouldn't be wrong with any of them. Another offensive lineman taking huge strides would make that entire group better (Jimmy Gjere or Tommy Olson anyone?). You could really pick any defensive lineman or member of the secondary and make a strong case that not only are they capable of having a break-out season but they are poised to do so.
Give me your two and two!