Gophers junior safety Cedric Thompson grew so exasperated watching Michigan State outplay Ohio State in this month’s Big Ten Championship Game, he took to Twitter with a bold prediction:
Favorite this tweet, screen shot it DO WHATEVER! I promise YOU the Minnesota Golden Gophers will be in this game next year. I PROMISE!— Cedric Thompson Jr.™ (@Cedmalu) December 8, 2013
The enthusiasm inside the football program is palpable, as the Gophers have improved from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-4 in the first three years under Jerry Kill. This Friday, they play Syracuse in the Texas Bowl, with a chance to reach nine victories for only the second time since 1905.
The question now is, will this success continue? Are the improved records under Kill part of a trend that can eventually lead to 10, 11 even 12 wins? Kill’s staff and his players clearly believe the answer is yes.
But Gerry DiNardo, the former Indiana coach now an analyst for the Big Ten Network, is far more measured. DiNardo believes that Kill already has the program pushing against Minnesota’s ceiling, not unlike the results of former coach Glen Mason’s tenure from 1999 to 2006.
“Mason was where they are now for quite a few years,” DiNardo said in a telephone interview. “I always anticipated that under similar leadership they could be a six-, seven-, eight-win team.
“When you have your nonconference [schedule] the way it is, you have a chance to win six to eight games. I mean, that’s the Minnesota job — four wins in nonconference and two more, four more [in the Big Ten]. This is the formula.”
But how can the Gophers take the next step?
“I think the equation would have to change significantly with resources,” DiNardo said. “You know: facilities, [more] recruiting personnel, private planes. I don’t think they’re on course to be a [Big Ten title] challenger unless the rest of the West [Division] doesn’t maximize their resources.”
Facilities lag behind
DiNardo tours the entire Big Ten twice each year — during spring practice and preseason camp — giving him a firsthand look at what the Gophers have compared with their competition.
“You can make a case that they’re 12th of 12 [teams] when it comes to resources in the conference,” DiNardo said. “Facilitieswise, it’s not even close.”
By that, DiNardo means the indoor practice facility, weight room and nutrition areas. He said it’s nice for Minnesota fans to have 5-year-old TCF Bank Stadium but notes that players spend about 10 days per year there, counting spring practice. They spend almost every other day on campus in the training facilities, and those aren’t helping recruiting, DiNardo said.
“A prospect wants to know where he’s going to go every day,” DiNardo said. “Training table, for example: I often see at Minnesota they eat in the hallway, and it’s food with Bunsen burners underneath.”
The Gophers do indeed hold their training table with catered meals inside the entryway to the Gibson/Nagurski Practice Facility. It’s a high-ceilinged room filled with Gophers memorabilia — a nice place to visit, but hardly a dining room.
“When [recruits] go to Nebraska, by way of example, when you walk into their training table, it looks like a restaurant,” DiNardo said. “I mean, it is decked out. Wisconsin just built brand new facilities. They have juice bars — it’s a kitchen, it’s a restaurant.”
Last July, the Gophers athletics department unveiled an ambitious $190 million facilities plan that would upgrade the training facilities for most sports. The primary goals were addressing the gap for the football and basketball teams.
For now, that project remains in the fundraising feasibility stage. Athletic director Norwood Teague said the new facility is the department’s “top priority.”
“I am thrilled about our prospects for improving that area,” Teague said. “We’re making progress every day, as far as fundraising, putting together plans and growing that part of our athletic department with our football program.”
Kill’s health questions
For Kill, the facilities improvements can’t come soon enough, but he knows he can control only so much. Winning usually helps spur fundraising, so in that regard the football team is doing its part.
“I always said our biggest goal was to make sure we could get all the people in the state of Minnesota to feel good about the direction we’re going,” Kill said last month. “We’ve still got a lot of room to get better, and we’ve got a young team, but we’re moving forward.”
Kill, 52, can control only so much when it comes to his health, too, and that’s another lingering question for the program.
Last summer, Kill said he felt the best he had since 2005, when he was first diagnosed with epilepsy. But he had a seizure at halftime Sept. 14 against Western Illinois. Three weeks later, Kill missed the team’s trip to Michigan because of another seizure. It was the fourth time in three years at Minnesota that he had missed at least part of a game because of a seizure.
Kill announced he was taking time away to concentrate on his epilepsy treatment. The break lasted about two weeks. He spent time at a level-four epilepsy treatment center in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a few more days at home in Minneapolis.
At the time, the Gophers were reeling. After a 4-0 nonconference start, they had lost their first two Big Ten games convincingly against Iowa and Michigan.
But then the story changed. With acting head coach Tracy Claeys on the sideline, and Kill coaching from the press box, the Gophers reeled off their first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 1973.
Kill got the “signature win” he had been pining for when the Gophers defeated Nebraska for the first time since 1960. The other Big Ten wins came against Northwestern, Indiana and Penn State. The regular season ended with losses to Wisconsin (20-7) and Michigan State (14-3), but Kill refused to be discouraged.
Comparing it to how the Gophers played in the final two regular-season games last year — losses to Nebraska (38-16) and Michigan State (26-10) — Kill said, “Physically, we’re a whole different team.”
Kill said he fell back into bad habits earlier this season — sleeping less than three hours per night, and relying on a diet of pretzels and Diet Coke. Work days that used to last 15-16 hours have been reduced to 11-12 hours, he said. He’s sleeping closer to six hours per night and eating better.
Before the Michigan State game, Kill said he was under “marching orders” to continue coaching from the press box. Asked this week if he planned to return to the sideline for the bowl game, Kill said he’s not sure.
Kill insists “everything’s OK” with his health, but the Gophers have to wonder if it’s worth risking another in-game seizure in the bowl game. By waiting to return to the sideline until next season, Kill would have that much more time to continue treating his epilepsy.
Recruiting impact unknown
It’s still hard to know how much this season’s success has impacted the Gophers recruiting.
“I think things are going pretty good,” Kill said. “You never know until Signing Day [on Feb. 5].”
As of Friday, the Gophers’ 2014 recruiting class ranked 65th in the nation, according to the latest 247Sports.com composite rankings, which factor in the other recruiting services. That left Minnesota 13th out of 14 Big Ten teams, including next year’s additions, Maryland and Rutgers.
But Kill notes that his three recruiting classes at Northern Illinois all ranked toward the bottom of the Mid-American Conference, and those players, including Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch, have helped the Huskies go 46-9 over the past four years.
Under Kill, the Gophers have turned several so-called “two-star” recruits — including Thompson, Eric Murray, Theiren Cockran, Damien Wilson and Derrick Wells — into impact players.
For 2014, the Gophers have a verbal commitment from Jeff Jones, a four-star running back from Minneapolis Washburn. Jones has changed that to a soft commitment, however, with plans to make other official visits.
The Gophers still have strong commitments from tight end Gaelin Elmore (who had offers from Wisconsin, Michigan State and Nebraska), defensive back Khari Blasingame (Northwestern), junior college linebacker Cody Poock (Texas Christian and Illinois) and center Connor Mayes (Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas A&M).
A key test for Kill’s staff is Chanhassen offensive lineman Frank Ragnow, whose decision seems to be coming down to the Gophers and No. 1 Florida State.
Another step in 2014?
Claeys has said the impact on recruiting will come with future classes, since so many members of the 2014 class had committed by the time the Gophers defeated Nebraska. Of course, it will help if next year’s team maintains this momentum.
The defense will lose some key seniors: defensive tackles Ra’Shede Hageman and Roland Johnson, linebackers Aaron Hill and James Manuel, and defensive backs Brock Vereen, Jeremy Baltazar and Martez Shabazz.
This year’s team ranks 27th nationally in scoring defense, at 22.3 points allowed per game.
“Brock is a big key to our defense, and Ra’Shede — obviously,” Thompson said. “Nobody’s going to be better than Ra’Shede with his size, strength and his athleticism. But we have people who can come behind them and do the job well.”
Offensively, the Gophers still have much to prove, as they are riding a streak of 10 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown. But that unit won’t lose much to graduation. The only outgoing senior starters are wide receiver Derrick Engel, left tackle Ed Olson and fullback Mike Henry.
Three potential impact players who redshirted this year are running back Berkley Edwards, wide receiver Eric Carter and tight end Nate Wozniak. Edwards was expected to play this year before spraining an ankle during preseason camp.
“I think, like Coach Kill says, we’re a year behind the defense,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “We kind of had those ups and downs that the defense had last year, and I think the biggest thing is pounding these guys for the next six months about consistency. Because I think we have a chance to be very good.”
Next year’s schedule includes nonconference games against Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee State, Texas Christian and San Jose State. The TCU game looked tough when the Gophers added it last summer, but the Horned Frogs went 4-8 this year.
In Big Ten play, the Gophers are moving into the West Division, along with Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue. That’s an easier draw than the East Division, but the Gophers still have crossover games against Ohio State and Michigan.
It looks like a difficult slate, if the Gophers want to win their first Big Ten title since 1967. But Thompson promises they won’t be deterred.
“I know we are capable of doing it,’’ he said.