With a view from atop the same conference, coming off last year’s Big Ten football title, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has seen the work Jerry Kill has done and views Minnesota as another program on the rise.
Dantonio is a no-nonsense coach who doesn’t dish out empty praise, and there was no mistaking his sincerity this week as he spoke about the Gophers.
“The University of Minnesota is one of the fastest-improving programs in this conference,” Dantonio said at Big Ten media days in Chicago. “I think [Kill’s] an excellent coach and motivator, and I think his players love him. I think they’ve really got things going like this.”
Dantonio finished the thought with an upward hand motion, and that’s exactly what Kill wants as his fourth year as Gophers coach begins with Friday’s first practice.
After winning three, six and eight games in Kill’s first three years, the Gophers would love to increase that total again. But they face a tougher schedule, and they need to replace NFL draft picks Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, along with quarterback Philip Nelson.
But Dantonio referenced something that transcends individual players, a toughness factor the Gophers showed in their 14-3 loss in East Lansing last year — Michigan State’s closest Big Ten game of the season.
“Their tailback did a nice job running the football; is he back?” Dantonio said, nodding after being told David Cobb does indeed return after rushing for 1,202 yards as a junior. “He’s a good player. The offensive line was very physical. They’re very well-coached.”
After spending three years in the Legends Division with Michigan State, the Gophers have moved to the Big Ten West with Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue. Throw in inter-divisional games against Ohio State and Michigan, and Kill wasn’t surprised his team was a preseason pick to finish fifth in the West.
“People look at our schedule, and they probably say they’ve got one of the tougher schedules in the Big Ten, if not the [toughest],” Kill said. “Last year, there wasn’t anybody in the country who figured we were going to win eight games. So you’ve got to continue to earn respect.”
Fans appear to have more respect for this year’s squad. According to the Gophers, they’ve sold 3,611 student season tickets (up from 2,138 at this time last year) and the non-student season ticket total is 28,152 (up from 27,981 last year).
Kill made it clear the goal is to win the team’s first Big Ten title since 1967, and Cobb said the players aren’t joking when they say they can go 12-0.
Last year, the Gophers were picked last in their division but reeled off their first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 1973, including victories over Nebraska and Penn State. Minnesota was 8-2 before the offense sputtered in losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State. The season ended with a thud, as the favored Gophers lost to Syracuse 21-17 in the Texas Bowl.
“Our biggest motivation is losing that bowl game,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “Guys have been hungry going into this offseason. We’ve watched a lot of tape of a lot of teams, and we can compete with anybody in the Big Ten.”
So much hinges on Leidner, who started four games and relieved Nelson in six others last year as a redshirt freshman. Nelson left the program in January, decluttering the quarterback picture, but Leidner will need some receiving targets to emerge beyond tight end Maxx Williams.
The Gophers expect another potent rushing attack behind a veteran offensive line. Besides Cobb, they have Berkley Edwards ready to provide a speedy change of pace.
On defense, the Gophers need to replace five starters. They ranked 25th in the country last year in points allowed (22.2), but even without Hageman and Vereen, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said there’s enough talent to improve.
“I’ll be disappointed if we don’t play better this year again,” Claeys said. “We’re going to have more kids this year than ever who already have two years or more of experience. So the depth is going to be there, and we’re getting better athletically.”
The Gophers have four weeks to fine-tune things before their Aug. 28 opener against Eastern Illinois. Then, the difficulty builds with road games at TCU and Michigan and this November slate: Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin.
Dantonio might be right, and the Gophers could be better, but it’s going to be tough proving it this year in the win column.