The Gophers got seven touchdown receptions from their tight ends last year — four by John Rabe and three by Drew Goodger — so this isn’t an entirely new wrinkle. But Williams has emerged as one of the best players on the team, with a knack for making big plays on third and fourth down.
4. Special teams improvements
Kill says he wants his team to win two of three phases each game between offense, defense and special teams. Aside from the Indiana game, which included some long kickoff returns by the Hoosiers, the Gophers have held a special teams edge in each contest.
The year started with two electrifying touchdown returns from Marcus Jones — one on a kickoff, one on a punt. An ankle injury has slowed him down, but the Gophers still are finding an edge with their kicking and punting.
Jordan Wettstein hit 14 of 22 field goals for the Gophers last year. This year, senior Chris Hawthorne is 12-for-15.
Last year, the Gophers ranked last in the Big Ten with a net punting average of 34.2 yards. Sophomore Peter Mortell took over the punting duties for Christian Eldred this year, and the Gophers rank fourth in the Big Ten in net punting average at 38.1 yards.
Mortell won Big Ten Special teams player of the week honors in each of the Gophers’ past two games.
5. An opportunistic defense
When the Gophers improved from 3-9 to 6-7 in Kill’s first two years, they owed much of that improvement to their defense, which allowed 24.7 points per game last year, down from 31.7 in 2011.
This year, the Gophers have lowered that number to 23.4 points per game, despite giving up more yards (380.8 per game) than last year (358.6). Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys preaches the importance of “defending every inch,” and the Gophers have been opportunistic.
Linebacker James Manuel had a critical 24-yard interception return for a touchdown in the 20-17 victory at Northwestern. The Gophers escaped Indiana with a 42-39 victory after linebacker Aaron Hill picked up a fumble on a lateral in the waning seconds.
Most recently, Penn State went scoreless in the second half of its 24-10 loss at Minnesota, but that included a fumbled snap at the 1-yard line by Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
“If you play hard,” Kill said, “sometimes things fall your way.”