Maybe it's fitting that the Gophers approached Saturday's game against Miami not quite certain about who would coach the team. So far, the question of who will lead this Minnesota team is unclear, too.
The mystery isn't a locker room one, a run-the-huddle puzzle; the 1-2 Gophers have a corps of upperclassmen who have taken charge and kept their teammates focused on their goals.
But it's on the field itself that the unexpected has become the norm.
The Gophers have done a good job of uncovering valuable contributions from surprising sources. Three of their past five offensive touchdowns have come from redshirt freshmen Lamonte Edwards, Donnell Kirkwood and John Rabe, and another was scored by previously little-used senior Collin McGarry. Total collegiate touchdowns among them before this season: Zero.
Malcolm Moulton has also become an effective receiver, turning a 2-yard pass into a 59-yard gain Saturday by avoiding a tackle and charging up the left sideline. The junior-college transfer has chipped in with at least a pair of catches and more than 20 yards in each of the Gophers' first three games, settling in as one of quarterback MarQueis Gray's most explosive targets.
As the newcomers have made impacts, however, contributions from the players most expected to carry the Gophers offense have been inconsistent.
Duane Bennett, the Gophers' leading returning rusher from a year ago, blew through a hole and picked up 25 yards on his first carry of the season. Since that play, though, the senior tailback has gained only 65 yards on 30 carries, a 2.2-yard average.
Eric Lair, the senior tight end whose goal for the season is to earn all-Big Ten honors, has only four receptions and no touchdowns so far, though he did single-handedly set up a Gophers field goal Saturday with a 43-yard run that featured a broken tackle and a fake that fooled another defender.
And Da'Jon McKnight, who just missed the school record for touchdown catches last season, has only one so far this season. He's the Gophers' leading receiver with 16 catches and 221 yards, but roughly two-thirds of that haul came in one game, a 146-yard effort against New Mexico State. He's making catches but has yet to establish a reliable, wear-out-the-defense relationship with Gray.
That's not to say those three seniors aren't making contributions. Bennett, for instance, made the game-changing play Saturday by roaring in from the right side to block a Miami punt and carry it into the end zone. And Lair and McKnight have chipped in -- just not at the rates they are used to, nor at the greater outputs that were expected from them as veterans on such a young team.
Of course, the reason for that may be that, for the moment, the Gophers' offense revolves around Gray and the work-in-progress development the coaching staff is trying to draw from him. Saturday's game plan included a diet of short, safe passes and lots of tuck-and-runs, and the quarterback rewarded that plan with 171 rushing yards and 163 more through the air.
"You can see him gaining confidence," said coach Jerry Kill after his first victory as Minnesota's coach, 29-23 over Miami. "There is a lot he still needs to learn. We can't run him 25 times a game, and we have to be careful with that. It is a building year, and people will need to be patient."
Still, the RedHawks were impressed with what they saw, both from Gray and his team.
"We had a lot of respect for him coming in, and he just demonstrated why we had so much respect," Miami coach Don Treadwell said of Gray. "There's no question we played a good team. They played very inspired as well."
Phil Miller • email@example.com