I'm pretty sure that TMP has covered this before but I feel like during the bye week this is a good opportunity to revisit this discussion. My initial reaction to Saturday's loss to Michigan, the 0-2 start and the fan reaction is that I think many people are jumping to conclusions about the future of the program and the Jerry Kill era based on 2 games of this season. We are making macro conclusions based on a microcosm of the season. My second thought is that the most vocal among us are the ones pointing out just how easy this rebuilding process is without concrete and realistic suggestions beyond hitting the restart button again.
This isn't meant to be a Pollyanna post about how everything is going according to plan, Saturday's 29-point loss was really one pass away from being 20-28 late in the 4th quarter and if you dare question Coach Kill you will be banished to the GopherHole. But there are some things that I think can be addressed and looked at reasonably, even after the blow-out loss to Michigan.
I do think it is fair to say that virtually all of us had expectations that this year's team would be better than the 2012 version. And while better is a subjective term, I would bet that most of us thought we'd be seeing more of this "better-ness" than we are currently seeing. We were all expecting a step forward, unfortunately I would argue the step forward has only been a baby step. But there is still a lot of the season remaining, half of it to be exact. There is still time for more baby steps to be taken forward, resulting in tangible evidence that things are improving. I've said this before and I'll repeat, improvement is not necessarily a linear progression.
You may recall that last year we kicked off the Big Ten season getting similarly manhandled by Iowa, losing at home to Northwestern and getting beat up by Wisconsin. In those three games Mark Weisman rushed for 177, Venric Mark rushed for 182 and Wisconsin's two feature backs who each had over 165 yards against us. Do you actually remember just how bad it was? The Gophers gave up an average of 242 yards rushing in those three games but they ended up improving only allowing 143 per game in the next four games (before Michigan State's LeVeon Bell put up a lot on us). Give the season time to play out, there is still time to see improvement.
The Iowa game was clearly a step in the wrong direction and one of the more frustrating losses considering you were facing another lower-tier team at home with an opportunity to prove on the field that you are getting better as a program. We fell on our face, we then went to Michigan and were beaten soundly and now things are looking their bleakest. But the season is not over and grand judgements on the overall state of the program and Kill's ability to move us forward can and should be discussed at that point.
Take yourself back to when Kill was hired. Everyone was on the same page that this was going to take time and patience was required. Two and a half seasons is not when you abandon patience. People love to point to Barry Alvarez and how he turned around a bad Wisconsin program. People love to point to Pat Fitzgerald who has a program with more roadblocks to success than Minnesota. Barry Alvarez was 5-6 in year three losing four of their last five and they avoided undefeated Michigan. It was year four when Alvarez had a breakout year and it should be noted that he was starting at least 18 juniors or seniors on that 1993 team. Pat Fitzgerald, it took him till year 7 before having his breakout season and the program he took over 7-5 the year before he took over.
Looking at Minnesota, Glen Mason did manage an 8-win season in year three. He was also fortunate to have guys like Tyrone Carter and Ben Hamilton on that team. While at Kansas, Mason was 3-7-1 in year three and he didn't really break through until year 5. It takes time and it takes patience. Even when you cherry-pick the examples that prove to be the exception, patience is in order.
Rebuilding takes time and I implore anyone to lay out the gameplan for how it should be done differently at this point. I firmly believe that things are improving, but the process has been slower than many of us want or expected. Off the field the team is taking giant leaps and bounds in terms of accountability and academically. On the field the team is more disciplined there are some statistical improvements, albeit slight. A lack of talent is a major concern but I would argue that recruiting is also improving, again slowly.
Much of the problem, particularly on offense, is the fact that this team is lacking playmakers. But take a look at our skill position players and their age/year. Quarterback is currently manned by a redshirt freshman, with a true sophomore also in the mix. Maxx Williams is emerging as an offensive threat and he is a freshman. Our most "talented" receivers? Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones are true freshmen who are slowly gaining time and snaps. Maybe our most dynamic offensive player, Berkley Edwards, is being redshirted. Rodrick Williams is a sophomore. And there is still hope at receiver for Eric Carter and Jamel Harbison, both freshmen. Our starting tackles are a redshirt freshman and a sophomore. Like it or not, we are a young team which adds to the need for patience.
Coming in next year are a couple of highly regarded offensive recruits in Jeff Jones (fingers crossed) and Connor Mayes (offers from Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU, etc). Recruiting is improving, slowly.
It is really easy to sit at our keyboards and make grand declarations about the future of the program and how easy it should be to fix this. But I believe if you want to actually fix it, you have to fix it right. That means starting at the foundation and building from there. This program was really in a bad spot when Kill took over. The talent level was low and the team discipline was worse. It takes time to not only teach these guys to be better football players but also to teach them how to conduct themselves so that they can then be taught to be better football players.
Is Kill "going" to turn things around? I haven't seen enough to say he is a lock to take us to the next level, I'm not ready to start erecting a statue here. If you want to point to other programs that had breakout years, you have to recognize that patience was required there as well. Improvement is not always linear. Patience has to reign, even now when it may be the most difficult time to do so.