Fall training camp starts Saturday for the Gophers football program, and as usual a multitude of questions face the team. Here are five big ones going into head coach Jerry Kill's second season.
1 ARE THERE ANY GAME-CHANGING PLAYMAKERS ALONGSIDE MARQUEIS GRAY?
The Gophers have better depth at wide receiver and tailback this year, but having a lot of roughly equal options isn't enough. Good teams have breakout stars, talents who can carry the offense and force defenses to game-plan specifically to contain them. Nobody knows if the Gophers have that sort of virtuoso on the roster, but Kill can't wait to find out.
Brandon Green, whose 15 catches last year were the most by any returning receiver, is a senior, but it's the young guys who are most intriguing. Sophomores Marcus Jones, back from a knee injury, and Devin Crawford-Tufts got some valuable playing time last year, and transfer student Isaac Fruechte has a year (and nine touchdowns) of junior-college experience. Incoming freshmen Jamel Harbison and Andre McDonald are regarded as potential go-to guys -- once they get a little seasoning. See anyone you like, coach?
"I feel [Crawford-Tufts] is going to have a good year," Kill said. "I feel that coming on."
The picture is only slightly clearer at tailback, where James Gillum's 2,339 yards in junior college presumably make him the front-runner to succeed Duane Bennett. But Donnell Kirkwood, Devon Wright and David Cobb all got a taste of Big Ten play last year and will get long looks this fall.
2 HOW MUCH OF THE LOAD CAN AND WILL GRAY CARRY?
The 250-pound quarterback gained 966 yards on the ground last year, easily the most on the roster. Running is fun, Gray says, but it can be counterproductive, too. "I'm fine with it," he said, "but a quarterback is supposed to throw the ball."
Trouble is, Gray only completed 50.7 percent of his passes last season, worst of any starting quarterback in the Big Ten. Hard work on his technique during the offseason and a much higher comfort level with the offense should bring that percentage up to acceptable levels, Kill believes. Gray's rollouts and scrambles will still be part of the game plan, but not the centerpiece.
And Jones, the returning slot receiver, says he and his teammates should give their senior leader more help. "[We made] so many misplays last year," he said. "You can look at film, turn on any game, and there will be a dropped ball. A drop for a touchdown, or a missed assignment. So there's definitely pressure on us to get better."
3 CAN THE DEFENSE CREATE MORE PRESSURE ON OPPOSING OFFENSES?
The Gophers recorded 19 sacks last year, shoring up their worst-in-the-nation total of nine the previous year. But they dropped into the basement nationally with only nine takeaways all season. "We didn't give the offense much help," safety Brock Vereen said. "We didn't put them into good positions very often."
Kill and his staff have responded by looking for more speed, figuring quicker pursuers will get in position to pick off passes. Vereen and Derrick Wells are former cornerbacks now lining up at safety, and ex-safety James Manuel has moved up to linebacker. Meanwhile, Minnesota has more experience at defensive end, with sophomores Ben Perry and Michael Amaefula joining senior D.L. Wilhite -- those three combined for 5.5 sacks a year ago -- hoping to harass quarterbacks into making mistakes that result in interceptions.
4 IS THE DEFENSE STRONG ENOUGH UP THE MIDDLE?
Minnesota allowed 186 rushing yards per game last year, ranking 11th in the Big Ten, then lost the backbone of the defense to graduation. Mike Rallis, third on the team in tackles last year, will move inside at linebacker to call the signals and contain the run. Cameron Botticelli and Harold Legania will likely split time at tackle, in order to keep them fresh, according to Kill. And like his predecessor, Kill believes Ra'Shede Hageman has the potential not only to thrive in the middle of the line but to dominate. "I think he can be a force in the Big Ten. I believe that," Kill said. So can the running game be contained? "We've got the right ingredients," he said. "We'll see how they all mix together."
5 WILL PUNTING BE FIXED?
The Gophers have ranked among the bottom 20 teams nationally for the past two seasons, and while junior punter Dan Or-seske takes much of the blame from fans, Kill said the entire unit has been a problem. Still, he's brought in a trio of candidates to challenge the holdover punter for his job. Backup kicker David Schwerman and redshirt freshman Peter Mortell will be given opportunities to earn the job, and a freshman from Australia, Christian Eldred, was a late addition to the Gophes roster.
"That's kind of big deal for us this fall -- who is our punter going to be? We'll probably make that decision at Vegas," in the season opener, Kill said. "All the yardage we gave up in the punting game, that's hidden yardage that you don't realize how damaging it is. I know we struggled, but I'm making sure we'll be better this year."