What the Gophers need to improve in 2012

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2011 - 12:53 AM
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Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray (5) ran away from Illinois tacklers.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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1 DEVELOP MARQUEIS GRAY

Two months ago, the junior quarterback's future at the position was in serious doubt, after coaches yanked him in favor of freshman Max Shortell down the stretch of a loss to North Dakota State. He regained his status but still entered Saturday's finale in danger of becoming the first Gophers starter since Marquel Fleetwood in 1992 to complete fewer than half his passes. But Gray's steady improvement, and particularly over a three-game stretch against Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan State, has cemented his hold on the job. Now he gets nine months to review and relearn the playbook with the benefit of a season's worth of full-speed experience. His ability to find receivers downfield may be the most important improvement the 2012 Gophers can make.

2 IDENTIFY A RUNNING BACK

Duane Bennett enjoyed the best season of his career, and it's a good thing: The Gophers essentially played all season without a backup tailback. Since conference play started, no back but Bennett has more than Donnell Kirkwood's 80 total yards. Not only is there no obvious heir, there is no front-runner for the job. "It means we're definitely going to have some competition, and that's good. It brings out the best in everybody," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "When you have an heir apparent, sometimes the other guys don't work as hard." Kirkwood and fellow freshmen David Cobb and Devon Wright will face competition from incoming freshmen Rodrick Williams and juco transfer James Gillum.

3 RECRUIT MORE SPEED

Jerry Kill said he likes to build around fast players, but he didn't find many already here. The 2011 Gophers may have been the slowest squad he's ever coached, and it got slower when freshman receiver Marcus Jones' season was short-circuited by a knee injury. The lack of quickness especially hurt in the secondary, where the Gophers allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 68.7 percent of their passes, and in rushing, where the Gophers have now gone more than three seasons without breaking a 40-yard run. Freshman receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts has flashed game-changing speed, but the Gophers need many more like him.

4 GET TO THE QUARTERBACK

It was defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys' biggest project before the season, and he made only incremental progress; the Gophers won't rank 120th in sacks this season, merely 105th (entering Saturday). But as the dismal completion percentage demonstrates, Minnesota's toothless pass rush remains a major weakness that infects the rest of the defense -- and next year, the Gophers won't have veteran tackles Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey in the middle of the line to occupy blockers. Their freshman defensive ends should improve as they add muscle, but the Gophers' best hope may be that Ra'Shede Hageman becomes a consistent disruptive force who demands double-teams. Of course, they've been saying that for two years.

5 MARKET THE TEAM CREATIVELY

Saturday's widespread no-shows offer a preview of what the Gophers will face in TCF Bank Stadium next fall if the football team continues merely to take "baby steps," as Kill likes to say. Victories are the ultimate ticket promotion, but if the Gophers are still a year or two away from Legends Division contention, they'll have to find a way to sell tickets for a home schedule that lacks Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State or a major nonconference draw. Those tickets, after all, fund more than just football for Minnesota's cash-conscious athletic department.

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