After going 3-9 and 6-7 in his first two years as Gophers coach, Jerry Kill is determined to take another big step forward this year.
When last seen, the Gophers were walking off the field in disappointment at the Meineke Car Care Bowl, having played one of their best games of the season against Texas Tech, only to lose 34-31.
The Gophers open spring practice Tuesday with the first of 15 sessions that will culminate with the annual spring game on April 27 at TCF Bank Stadium.
"We feel like we've had an outstanding offseason since playing Texas Tech," Kill said Monday. "I think we built on the way we played in the bowl game, and that carried over into the offseason. Our kids have worked very hard."
Here are four questions facing the Gophers this spring:
1. Is Philip Nelson the best answer at quarterback?
Nelson started the team's final seven games last year as a true freshman and had some up-and-down moments before finishing with a strong performance in the bowl game.
Kill said Nelson will run the first-team offense this spring, "but he's going to have to prove it on an everyday basis, just like every other player on the team. We've got two young guys [Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler] that I'm sure are hungry and wanting to show what they can do, and we're excited about that."
Leidner redshirted last year but was impressive running the scout team. Streveler earned Illinois all-state honors as a dual threat quarterback at Marian Central Catholic. Just as Nelson and Leidner did last year, Streveler enrolled at the university in January, making him eligible for spring practice.
2. Will the offensive theme be run, run, run?
It sure sounds that way. The Gophers were encouraged with how well they ran the ball in the bowl game, gaining 222 yards on 54 attempts. Texas Tech wasn't built to stop the run, but the Gophers still liked the way the offensive line got healthy in time for that game and controlled the line of scrimmage.
"We need to play physical like we did in our last game," Kill said. "That's who we want to be."
The Gophers like their offensive line depth and believe they can continue to run the ball with Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams coming back, not to mention speedy incoming recruit Berkley Edwards.
3. Who are some potential new impact players?
Junior college transfer Damien Wilson is a key player to watch this spring, since he could become the starting middle linebacker, replacing outgoing senior Mike Rallis.
"Damien's had a great offseason and we look forward to seeing him play," Kill said. "He'll play [middle] linebacker because he's 6-2, 250 [pounds]. He doesn't look it, but he is. He's a very good athlete."
Another middle linebacker candidate is redshirt freshman Jack Lynn, who weighs 234 pounds, up from 210 last year.
"We expect a whole lot out of Jack," Kill said. "He can run and change directions."
Sophomore cornerback Eric Murray makes this list, too. He played all 13 games last year, primarily on special teams.
"He's a tremendous athlete, had a great offseason and is one of the faster guys on the team," Kill said.
4. Can the defensive improvement continue?
The Gophers made big strides defensively last year, allowing 24.7 points per game, down from 31.7 the previous year.
With five defensive starters to replace, the linebackers are the biggest concern, with Aaron Hill the only starter returning to that unit. This spring, the staff will take a long look at Wilson and Lynn, along with James Manuel and Lamonte Edwards.
"We are a little bit thin [at linebacker] this spring, but the people that are in there need to get more repetition," Kill said. "I think we've got some good [recruits coming for this fall], but we're going to approach the spring like we've got nobody coming in."