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.

Defense

The Gophers are banged up on defense, especially in the secondary, and this is catching up to them. Through six games last year, they had the Big Ten’s second-ranked pass defense, allowing 162.5 yards per game. This year, they rank 10th in that category at 255.5 yards per game.

Part of it has been the lack of a pass rush. Even with NFL prospect Ra’Shede Hageman at defensive tackle, the Gophers have managed only seven sacks, compared to 11 at this time last year.

The bye week came at a key time for the secondary. Safeties Cedric Thompson (concussion symptoms) and Brock Vereen (knee), and cornerbacks Martez Shabazz (shoulder) and Derrick Wells (shoulder) will get an extra week to heal.

They’ll need it because the next three opponents — Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana — rank among the Big Ten’s top four teams in scoring offense.

Special teams, etc.

Kill often says a team needs to win two of three facets — offense, defense or special teams — to be successful. The Gophers have been good on special teams this year, with return man Marcus Jones becoming a difference-maker.

The Gophers are the least-penalized team in the Big Ten and they have only seven turnovers this year, compared to 12 last year.

Kill’s recruiting classes have ranked toward the bottom of the conference, but this coaching staff can cite several players — including Leidner, Wells, Thompson, defensive end Theiren Cockran and cornerback Eric Murray — who’ve outperformed their rankings.

Tim Brewster’s program lost scholarships because of academics. Under Kill, the team has posted its best Academic Progress Rate (994 for the 2011-12 school year) in the program’s history.

Those close to the program can see the foundation improving. But it’ll be hard selling that to the public if the Gophers go 0-6 or 1-5 in their last six games.

 

Joe Christensen • jchristensen@startribune.com

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