Gophers at a glance
The Gophers open their season Thursday against UNLV at TCF Bank Stadium. Here is a quick primer on the team as that first kickoff approaches:
Last year: 6-7 (2-6 Big Ten), lost to Texas Tech 34-31 in Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Head coach: Jerry Kill, 136-89 in 19 years, third season at Minnesota.
Returning starters: Nine on offense, six on defense.
Key departures: QB/WR MarQueis Gray, QB Max Shortell, WR A.J. Barker, WR Devin Crawford-Tufts, DE D.L. Wilhite, CB Troy Stoudermire, CB Michael Carter, LB Mike Rallis, LB Keanon Cooper, K Jordan Wettstein.
Key returnees: Sophomore QB Philip Nelson, junior RB Donnell Kirkwood, sophomore OT Josh Campion, senior DT Ra’Shede Hageman, senior LB Aaron Hill, senior S Brock Vereen.
Key newcomers: LB Damien Wilson, LB De’Vondre Campbell, WR/QB Donovahn Jones, DE Hendrick Ekpe, RB Berkley Edwards, WR Eric Carter, WR Drew Wolitarsky, K/P Ryan Santoso.
Schedule analysis: The Gophers should cruise past their first three opponents (UNLV, New Mexico State and Western Illinois). San Jose State went 11-2 last season and has one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in David Fales. If the Gophers win that one and defeat Iowa at home, they could be 5-0 with momentum heading to Michigan and Northwestern. After that, there’s a winnable game at Indiana, while Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin all visit TCF Bank Stadium.
Three keys to the season
1 An offense that scored 17 or fewer points eight times last season has most players back and needs to be more productive. The Gophers will rely heavily on the run behind a bulked-up offensive line. Nelson (above), who started seven games last year as a true freshman, might have a short leash if he’s not effective because redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner has come on strong.
2 The defense improved last season, especially against the pass, but the Gophers need to prove they can stop the run. They have a strong defensive line and much more depth in the secondary, but the linebackers are a big question. If Wilson and Campbell — both junior college transfers — come in and play well, this defense could be pretty good.
3 Like most teams this time of year, the Gophers believe they are bigger, stronger and faster. But injuries piled up quickly last year, as they used three quarterbacks (Gray, Shortell and Nelson) and three centers (Zach Mottla, Zac Epping and Jon Christenson). The Gophers got healthier in the month leading to their bowl game and played some of their best football all season in the loss to Texas Tech.
Predicted finish: 7-5 overall, 3-5 Big Ten, fifth place in the Legends Division.