Midseason report: Evaluating Gophers football program a convoluted issue

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2013 - 6:32 AM

Coach Kill’s health issues overshadow team’s progress.

If one starts with the theory that a college football coach needs five seasons in a new program before a full assessment can be made — long enough for his recruits to establish themselves — then Jerry Kill is right at the midpoint with the Gophers.

He is halfway through his third season at Minnesota, and now there is an elongated pause, with a bye this week, and Kill recuperating from another seizure.

Kill’s health has become the main story line again, and after taking a step forward on the field last year, the Gophers are in danger of taking a step back.

From a won-loss standpoint, this season has mirrored last year’s with a 4-0 nonconference start followed by two deflating Big Ten losses. At this point last year, Kill pulled a potential redshirt from quarterback Philip Nelson and squeaked into a bowl game with victories over Purdue and Illinois.

But the road ahead looks tougher this season. The Gophers could be underdogs in their final six games — at Northwestern, Nebraska, at Indiana, Penn State, Wisconsin and at Michigan State. Indiana had seemed to be the most winnable game, but the Hoosiers clobbered Penn State 44-24 last weekend.

With an eye on the big picture — analyzing where the program is now and where it could be by 2015, in Kill’s fifth season — here’s a look at where things stand:

Coaching

Whether the Gophers like it or not, this is the story, especially at a national level. Few are talking about the team’s on-field performance. They’re talking about Kill’s epilepsy because he’s missed parts of four games at Minnesota because of seizures, including two this season.

This still has potential to be a feel-good story, one that transcends sports. According to the National Epilepsy Foundation, 70 percent of epilepsy patients can become seizure-free with the proper medication. Kill is doing everything in his power to make that happen, working with a nationally renowned epileptologist.

While some fans and critics have called for Kill to step aside for health reasons, he has received an outpouring of support. Michigan coach Brady Hoke, for example, spoke about missing Kill on Saturday during the postgame radio show, following his team’s 42-13 victory.

“Jerry’s a dear friend — he and his wife, Rebecca,” Hoke said. “That’s a guy you want coaching your son because he’s such an outstanding man.”

Gophers football practices have been closed all season, and the university had no update on whether Kill returned to practice Wednesday.

Offense

When evaluating the coaching staff this year, however, one can’t help but look at the handling of quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner.

The 23-7 loss to Iowa has been the season’s defining moment, and Kill’s decision to start Nelson in that game — and stick with him for four quarters — didn’t sit well with fans.

Kill was trying to show confidence in Nelson, who had earned the starting job and played reasonably well before injuring his hamstring Sept. 14. Kill picked Leidner as the starter against Michigan, and the redshirt freshman had another strong game, despite two costly turnovers.

Leidner appears to be the guy now. The numbers support the choice. He and Nelson have had similar success rushing (5.0 yards per carry for Leidner, compared to 4.8 for Nelson). But Leidner has separated himself through the air (with a 132.4 passing rating, compared to 97.7 for Nelson).

Overall, it’s a young offense with only two seniors in impact roles — wide receiver Derrick Engel and fullback Mike Henry. But the offense needs to grow fast. Scoring seven and 13 points isn’t a formula to win Big Ten games.

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