Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson wore a full beard during preseason camp, perhaps in an effort to disguise his team’s inexperience at that position.
Nelson is the only quarterback on the roster who ever has taken a college snap, yet the sophomore’s experience still amounts to only seven games. The two players behind him on the depth chart are redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and true freshman Chris Streveler.
The rest of the roster is less green, but as coach Jerry Kill has been quick to note, he’ll probably start only one or two seniors on offense, and three or four on defense Thursday night against UNLV.
The Gophers begin Year 3 of the Kill era looking to take another step after finishing 3-9 and 6-7 his first two years as coach, including a 2-6 mark in Big Ten play both seasons.
Externally, however, expectations aren’t particularly high. In a poll of 28 Big Ten writers, the Gophers were picked to finish last in the Legends Division, behind Iowa. Most preseason Big Ten power rankings list the Gophers at No. 8 or No. 9 out of 12 teams.
“We feel like we’ve got nothing to lose right now and everything to gain,” Nelson said. “And we want to come out and prove people wrong.”
The Gophers felt buoyed by their showing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, even though they squandered a seven-point lead in the final 70 seconds of an eventual 34-31 loss. The Gophers entered that game as 13-point underdogs but capitalized on Texas Tech’s defensive weakness and limited the Red Raiders’ high-powered offense for much of the second half.
“A lot of people say, ‘What are you talking about momentum? You went 6-7 and lost a bowl game,’ ” junior defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli said. “But with how we approached that game, I think that creates momentum, even for offseason workouts and spring ball. We’re excited for the season.”
Offensively, the Gophers look similar to the team that played Texas Tech. Former quarterback/wide receiver MarQueis Gray has graduated, but if anything, his absence has helped the offense streamline its game plan around Nelson, Leidner and Streveler — three quarterbacks recruited by Kill’s staff.
Much like the bowl game, the Gophers will rely heavily on the run with junior Donnell Kirkwood (926 yards last year) and Rodrick Williams (261) carrying the bulk of the load behind a healthier and deeper offensive line. The Gophers had hoped to unveil speedy freshman Berkley Edwards against UNLV, but he’s out because of an ankle injury.
The Gophers will use the run to set up play-action passes, but the wide receivers are another big question mark. A.J. Barker quit the team last season, Devin Crawford-Tufts is focused on track and Andre McDonald was removed from the preseason roster for another violation of team rules.
But the Gophers see promise in their starting wide receivers — Isaac Fruechte, Derrick Engel and KJ Maye — and they are eager to see what converted quarterback Donovahn Jones can do. The 6-3 Jones, from Stockbridge, Ga., has a 40-inch vertical jump and “tremendous big-play potential,” Kill said.
Defensively, the Gophers are trying to replace five starters — sack leader D.L. Wilhite, cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire and linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. The defensive line, led by senior nose tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, is strong and deep, and so is a secondary led by senior safety Brock Vereen.
The Gophers needed an influx of new talent at linebacker, where Aaron Hill is the lone returning starter, and they believe they found it with junior college transfers Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell.
So what are the expectations, internally?
“The Big Ten championship is our goal,” Vereen said. “We’re shooting for the stars, and we think we can do it, we really do. Hopefully we can come out [against UNLV] and have a dominant game and show that it’s a possibility for us.”
Kill voiced a more modest — and many would say more realistic — goal.
“We want to be better than we were a year ago,” he said. “I don’t know what that is. I would tell you right now in our program, in every single phase, we’re further along than where we were a year ago. But it’s the same thing at Indiana or Northwestern or Michigan or Michigan State.”
That seems like one of the biggest challenges. Every team on the Gophers’ Big Ten schedule, except perhaps Penn State, has reason to believe it is better than last season.
Iowa went 4-8 last year. Can the Hawkeyes be worse? Keep in mind, Kirk Ferentz’s team throttled the Gophers 31-13 last year. The other most winnable game on Minnesota’s Big Ten schedule comes Nov. 2 at Indiana. The Hoosiers went 4-8 last year, with four of those losses coming by four or fewer points, including a 52-49 heartbreaker against Ohio State.
And oh by the way, Minnesota is 2-16 at Indiana since 1969.
In two years, Kill’s teams have won four Big Ten games — defeating Illinois twice, Purdue once and Iowa once. Now, Illinois and Purdue aren’t on the schedule.
Last year, the Gophers squeaked into a bowl game at 6-6, so if they go 7-5 (3-5 in the Big Ten) that would be tangible improvement, but the players don’t want to hear it.
“No one strives for mediocrity,” Botticelli said. “And we put in way too much work to do that. So this year, the stakes are definitely higher and we’re shooting for the top.”