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Minnesota Football: Recap of the Gophers' non-conference slate & a review of pre-season expectations

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I promised to revisit my preseason expectations after the non-conference slate, so lets put our waders on and get deep into the muck.

Jerry Kill prays to the injury gods for a respite from their wrath.
Jerry Kill prays to the injury gods for a respite from their wrath.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

My preseason piece and its seven win outlook had me feeling outside of the #TrueFan circle, so I resolved to be honest with myself and open up to any possible optimism after seeing our 2015 squad play four games.

Look At What This Guy Wrote Once

Preseason Expections

What I want to see from this team in the first four games is the following:

1) Health along the offensive and defensive lines. Injuries, particularly early injuries, have been a factor inhibiting the growth of the Gophers for a couple of years now. There have already been some dings and this team is going to need the trenches healthy and playing well for conference play.

Oofta. Sometimes it is difficult to appreciate something until it is gone. The health of offensive line falls into that category. Unfortunately, the rest of the team is beginning to follow suit. Continued injuries to our defensive backfield and linebacker corps are worrisome. Quite simply, the injuries need to stop for this team to realize its potential. A flood of injuries can happen from time to time, so looking to blame the staff for the injuries in a bit premature and dramatic. The sky is no longer bright blue, but no Sharknado has been spotted just yet. Painfully optimistic though here - Gopher fans will know more about their roster than ever. I, for one, will no longer have to ask my friends, "Why is Kirby Puckett playing nickel?" Welcome to Dem Boyz, Antonio Shenault!

2) An offense that optimizes use of its personnel through play-calling. One of my biggest takeaways from the TDG Seminar reading is that successful coaches have found ways to scheme around their best players at their individual best uses. I see players like Berkley EdwardsJeff Jones, and De'Vondre Campbell having unique best uses that need to be capitalized on.

Going into the Ohio game I was 100% pessimistic about the anticipated playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. On Saturday, however, some players began to emerge. Thus, I would like to invent a simple metric called "The Carpenter/Wheelwright Matrix" and compare players to it. No player was hyped quite like Hayo Carpenter in my lifetime. I also remember Ernie Wheelright being tabbed as the piece that would move the Gopher offense to new heights by keeping defenses honest. Receivers like Eric Decker or Ron Johnson had more production than Wheelwirght, but I do not remember either of them coming into the program with as much hype. Obviously, Hayo and Ernie had two very different careers and they will be used to classify the current crop of athletes.

The good news is that there are some young players who seem like they could end up with a career like Ernie Wheelright. Running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks will have an impact on offense for years to come. With some blocking, good health, and more experience these two could be Barber/Maroney Part Deux. Out wide, Rashad Still has the potential to live up to his hype from fall camp. Isaiah Gentry had a good game against Ohio, and has all the opportunity he should need to continue making an impact this season.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of wide outs who have been left out of the stat sheet this season. Desmond Gant, Melvin Holland, Jeff Jones, and Berkley Edwards have combined to gain three more yards than me this year. Since the roster is only becoming more skilled as time goes on, these young men should be concerned about ever finding the field for this team if this season finishes without them proving to the coaching staff that they belong. While these players are all young, it is not like there is a glut of upperclassmen holding them back. As a matter of fact, the only thing keeping these guys from the field is their own abilities.

With two players who have more eligibility remaining above him on the depth chart, it appears time to close the book on Edwards. Perhaps he can find a niche returning kicks, there may even be a opening available. It is also fair to question what Jeff Jones lost in his year away from the game. This coaching staff is clearly not afraid to play young players who earn their way into the gameplan. Despite elite athletic ability, Jones has not been able to become one of those players. You have to wonder what is not clicking for him; Jeff has had more time at the position than Donovahn Jones had before Donovahn made an impact. Jeff is a freak athlete and could adjust to the WR position in time, but he may just challenge Hayo's career line of 5 touches for 60 yards.

3) Pressure on the quarterback. For all the accolades the defense has earned under Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys, there has not been enough harassment of the opposing QB. Defensive ends need to stretch the pocket and the Gophers need to make quarterbacks nervous in the backfield.

Theiren Cockran was expected to re-emerge as the pass rushing threat for this team. TC has 8 tackles with 2.5 TFLs and 0 sacks through the first third of the season, which is certainly something less than a large impact for the Gopher defense. The same cannot be said for the man beast known as Steven Richardson, who has been a monster in the middle of the line. As impressive as his stat line of 14 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks is, it does not fully illustrate his importance to the success of the defensive line and defense as a whole. Alex Kieth has also been impressive for two weeks in a row, but the team still only has 5 sacks, 3 interceptions, and somehow just 1 QB hurry through four games. The pressure on the quarterback has been neither consistent nor persistent. It is important to note that opposing offenses have only averaged 5.0 yards per pass attempt this year, so the lack of pressure is partly due to the quick-passes that have been run against this defense. The fact remains, however, that more harassment on opposing QBs will be necessary during conference play.

New Developments:

1. Defense. Expectations were high for this defense coming into the season, but they have exceeded even my most optimistic of thoughts. Injuries have thinned the herd a bit and some missed tackles have disappointed, but I fully expect this defense to carry this team capably for the remainder of the season. As mentioned, Steven Richardson has continued his crusade against discrimination based on height. With a more consistent pass rush and a quick return to health for some key contributors, we could see a defense that allows fewer than 14 points per game.

2. Running backs. While the emergence of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks has been encouraging, it still seems as if the mojo is gone from this tough as nails running offense. David Cobb appears to have been the fine grit sandpaper that smoothed a lot of rough blocking in front of him. Further, Smith's youth shows in the lack of vision and patience that made Cobb special. Smith bounces runs outside far too quickly and B1G defenses will turn that kind of decision-making into negative runs at inopportune times for this offense. Shannon Brooks showed impressive wiggle through the hole, but his sample size is far too small to rely on at this point. The game against Northwestern will be telling for Brooks. By Saturday afternoon we will all know whether Brooks has more than one trick and if he can truly be relied on to get the tough yards this team needs to move the ball.

3. Special teams. Coach Kill and Jay Sawvel deserve some benefit of the doubt here but three consecutive weeks of poor play have a lot of fans worried. Gopher fans are a missed extra point away from the feared "Pet's heads falling off" territory. Craig James could not have had a comfortable film review after a perfectly imperfect outing against Ohio. Hopefully some young athletes like Berkley Edawrds and Jeff Jones are being given a chance to show what they can do returning kicks. They sure seem like they have the physical tools to do the job.

4. Quarterback. Mitch Leidner is not great and he is not terrible. It is time to accept what he is and understand that he will not be the quarterback that hits every throw or carries an anemic offense to the endzone every drive. In that way, Mitch has company with about 55 other quarterbacks who start for Power 5 teams. Exceptional quarterbacks are exceptional. Mitch is not and that is OK. Fans who expect something else from Mitch are setting themselves up for disappointment. However, it is fair to expect this coaching staff to find and develop a QB who is exceptional. Demry Croft seems like a good prospect, but he needs to lead a walk through before he runs this offense. In fact, the lack of development at the most important position in football is the most concerning part of Kill's tenure at Minnesota. Jerry Kill, Matt Limegrover, and Jim Zebrowski have failed to build the QB position to where it needs to be through their first half-decade in Minnesota. Whenever I hear this staff credited with Jordan Lynch's success at NIU, it reminds me of Tim Brewster being credited for the same in regards to Vince Young at Texas. The correlation is incredibly weak. Not only did Lynch's high school coach practically insist that Kill offer Jordan a scholarship, an argument can be made that Lynch had success precisely because Kill's staff left DeKalb for Minneapolis. Coach Zebrowski did not join Kill's staff until 2010, Jerry's last at NIU, and the results from his development of quarterbacks in that time have been far from flattering. Coach Zebrowski's seat has to be getting a little warm.

Remaining Schedule and Predictions:

10/3 - at Northwestern: Tossup

This will be an old-fashioned game with quality defense and offenses that will cause heart palpitations. Two teams that pride themselves on toughness come into a game terribly beat up. It's time for the Gophers to play the part of the bad guy and put a media darling in their place. I hope to see "Brooks was here" scratched into each goal post at the end of this game.

10/10 - at Purdue: Win

Win this game or go 0-8 in conference. How long will Darrell Hazell have a job?

10/17 - Nebraska: Tossup

Nebraska has not impressed this year. If the offensive line and defensive backfield have scholarship players on the field at this point in the season, the Gophers will keep the chair.

10/31 - Michigan: Loss

Now here is one media darling that is for real. The Gophers will need their top linemen for this game and I am not betting on a return to health to the degree that will be necessary to control the trenches against a tough Michigan team.

11/07 - at Ohio State: Loss

tOSU has been turnover prone, so perhaps the Gophers can take advantage of that, but I see Joey Bosa controlling this game at the line of scrimmage.

11/14 - at Iowa: Loss

Party like it's 1999? Unfortunately, the Hawkeyes look like a team that will be tough at the end of the year.

11/21 - Illinois: Win

Get your flu shots fellas.

11/28 - Wisconsin: Win

Why not? Who knows what these teams will look like in two months. Is it possible the leading rusher for the Gophers will have more yards than his Badger counterpart? This feels like the year the Axe returns to Minneapolis.

So there you have it, seven wins still seems the most realistic expectation for this team. How do you think the Gophers will finish?