For 10 games last fall, the Gophers made legitimate offensive strides, helping build an 8-2 record heading into their showdown with Wisconsin.
The Gophers were averaging 30.7 points per game, up from 22.1 the previous year.
But then, facing tougher defenses, the production vanished. The Gophers went 13 quarters without an offensive touchdown, starting with the second half of their 10th game, and sputtered to an 8-5 finish.
One week into spring practice, Coach Jerry Kill already has made his prediction about the offense: “We’ll be better, I can guarantee you that.”
Among the reasons he is optimistic is the team lost just one offensive linemen — part-time starter Ed Olson.
“That’s part of it, but we’re going to be better in the skill positions,” Kill said. “Right now, we’re better than we were a year ago, I can tell you that.”
Quarterback Philip Nelson transferred in January to Rutgers, leaving redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner in charge of that all-important position. The Gophers also lost wide receiver Derrick Engel and fullback Mike Henry to graduation, but the rest of the offense has returned intact.
That includes David Cobb, who rushed for 1,202 yards last year as a junior. Running back depth should be a strength. Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams return, and the team can’t wait to unveil redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, who is who is small (5-9, 190 pounds) but has extraordinary quickness and speed. Knowing Cobb is a workhorse, the Gophers have started lining Edwards up at wide receiver, adding to his versatility. They also might look to get creative with four-star running back Jeff Jones, assuming the incoming freshman becomes academically eligible.
In an effort to better utilize their personnel, the Gophers coaches spent two days consulting with Stan Parrish, a former offensive coordinator at Michigan and head coach at Ball State who also worked under Jon Gruden with the Buccaneers.
“Stan’s a guy who loves using multiple tight ends in the passing game,” Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “He had watched a bunch of our games, and he loved what we did with Maxx Williams, loved that we have five or six tight ends that we can move around.”
As a redshirt freshman, Williams led the run-happy Gophers with 25 receptions for 417 yards and five touchdowns. Expectations will be even higher for him this fall. And 6-9 Nate Wozniak — the “Big Woz” as Kill calls his young tight end — should also be a factor after redshirting last season. And three incoming freshmen tight ends could become part of the passing game once they arrive this summer: Gaelin Elmore (from Somerset, Wis.), Jerry Gibson (Theodore, Ala.) and Brandon Lingen (Wayzata).
Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky, the team’s top two receivers late last year as true freshmen, provide optimism about the position that again is the team’s most glaring question.
“You look at a guy like Donovahn who was a quarterback coming [into college] and never got to do the whole summer of captains’ practice,” Leidner said. “Now this winter, I’ve had a chance to work with him at receiver. That’s going to help.”
Kill also has raved about the size and speed of three wide receivers in this year’s recruiting class: Melvin Holland (Ashburn, Va.), Isaiah Gentry (Cincinnati Moeller) and Conner Krizancic (Mentor, Ohio).
Add it up, and the Gophers hope their offense can improve the way the team’s defense did, especially from 2011 to 2012, when the team went from allowing 31.7 points per game to 24.7.
“We worked hard to get back where we were [offensively] at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois,” Kill said. “Part of it is players. We’ve recruited good players.
“We’re moving [forward]. We built it on defense, and now you’ve got to bring the offense [along]. That’s what we’ve done everywhere we’ve been.”