Miller: Gophers coach's party line remains tempered

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 9, 2012 - 11:27 AM

Jerry Kill refuses to hype a flawed 4-1 team, to the chagrin of success-starved football fans.

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It was back to work for Gophers coach Jerry Kill after watching his team lose badly at Iowa. “We’re still trying to figure out who we are as a team,” he said.

Photo: Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

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The problem with enjoying a little success in a win-starved environment is that everyone wants so badly for it to be permanent. Maybe that's why Jerry Kill sounded so annoyed during the Gophers' bye week.

"I don't have a crystal ball, and I don't control time," the Gophers football coach said when asked, essentially, whether his team's 4-1 start to his second season had made him optimistic about the program's immediate future. "I just keep grinding, keep working, doing what we're doing, and let the chips fall where they may."

Not exactly selling bowl tickets yet, is he? It's difficult to fault Kill for his cautious approach, though, especially coming off a deflating 31-13 loss to Iowa on Sept. 29. But even if the Gophers had remained unbeaten, heading into the resumption of the season Saturday against Northwestern, it's unlikely that the coach's compass would be pointing in any other direction.

Within the Gophers football program, the slogan for this season is "Uncommon," a one-word representation of what Kill expects of his players. But the coach's favorite buzzword when dealing with his team's uncommonly skeptical and wary fanbase is a more pragmatic one: "Young."

"I keep saying the same thing -- we're a very young team. Very young," Kill said. "We took eight seniors to Iowa [actually 11, but still an unusually small number for a BCS-level program], and we're still trying to figure out who we are as a team."

That's an ongoing process, one that becomes more essential as the Big Ten season unfolds. The league appears weaker overall than it has in a few seasons, and the Gophers do not face Ohio State, the only Big Ten team ranked in the Associated Press' top 20 teams. So the opportunity to win a few league games -- they haven't managed more than three conference victories since 2005 -- is undeniable.

And the Gophers have begun to answer the questions that appeared most pressing before the season, mostly in a positive way. As the Gophers gear up for their seven-week stretch to the finish, let's review how those August concerns have shaken out:

1.Are there any game-changing playmakers alongside quarterback MarQueis Gray?

The Gophers haven't found a bust-out star, someone ready to step forward as an all-conference type of playmaker. There are medical reasons for the freshman-year fizzles of receivers Jamel Harbison and Andre McDonald. But the cast-of-thousands approach is working at receiver, with 10 players catching passes at Iowa. Walk-on A.J. Barker has established himself as the most effective pass-catcher, and depth has not been a problem.

In the backfield, Donnell Kirkwood has shouldered the load in the rushing game, and while he would like to improve his per-carry average of 4.2 yards, the Gophers appear more than comfortable with the sophomore carrying the ball. "Donnell's done a very good job," Kill said, and even his season-low output of 33 yards at Iowa "had to do with the blocking up front, not Donnell."

2. How much of the load can, and will, Gray carry?

OK, this one has been a problem. Gray's hoped-for improvement as a passer was only marginal in the season's first two games, victories over UNLV and New Hampshire. Then he sprained his left leg and ankle, removing the Gophers' most versatile weapon from the offense.

Sophomore backup Max Shortell has done a creditable job while Gray heals, but the Gophers offense is showing the effects of its leader's absence. And even if he is cleared to play this week, how long will it take for Gray to get comfortable in the offense again?

3. Can the defense create more pressure on opposing offenses?

The pass rush has been one of the season's biggest improvements, and it's made the Gophers, through five games, one of only four Big Ten teams holding opponents below 200 passing yards a game. Last year's Gophers recorded only 19 sacks; this year's defense has collected 11 already, and senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite ranks second in the conference with 4 1/2 sacks.

4. Is the defense strong enough up the middle?

This might be the biggest surprise, considering both starting safeties and the middle linebacker were learning new positions, while the defensive tackles were becoming starters for the first time. But Cedric Thompson and Derrick Wells have thrived in the secondary. Wells, a former cornerback, leads the team in tackles, while linebacker Mike Rallis moved into the middle with little trouble.

The defense had some breakdowns trying to stop Iowa running back Mark Weisman, a bad omen with players such as Kain Colter, Montee Ball, Denard Robinson and Rex Burkhead coming up in the next seven weeks, but there's no doubt the Gophers defense has improved this season.

5. Will punting be fixed?

Christian Eldred, an Australian still learning the game, has taken over the job and while not spectacular, has at least added consistency to a position that has long plagued the Gophers.

Phil Miller • phil.miller@startribune.com

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