Jerry Kill's debut season for the Golden Gophers was a rough one on and off the field. In just the second game of the season, Kill had a seizure at the end of the game and had to be taken from the field in an ambulance. Kill returned the next week as Minnesota beat Miami (Ohio) 29-23 for their first win of the season. Minnesota struggled throughout the first year of the Kill going just 3-9 on the season (which equaled their record from 2010). Minnesota lost games to both New Mexico State and North Dakota State but they did end the season on a positive as they beat Illinois 27-7 and cemented Ron Zook's fate. As Jerry Kill tries to clean up the mess that Tim Brewster left, we talked with the Minnesota based blog Fringe Bowl Team to find out their take on the 2011 season and get a brief glimpse of into 2012.
CFBZ: It was a tough year for Minnesota and Coach Kill in his debut season including a very scary on field moment. Minnesota only won three games but two of those came in the last five games. Where did you see the most improvement in the team throughout this season?
Fringe Bowl Team: Momentum on the season flipped its trajectory during the Purdue game, which carried forward into the bye week and the home contest against Nebraska. After an evisceration from Denard and the Wolverines that ranked as the worst conference loss in program history, the coaching staff made a number of changes: namely, shrinking the offensive line splits and shuffling the depth chart up front. In particular, moving long time starter at left guard Chris Bunders over to right tackle in place of injured redshirt freshmen Jimmy Gjere was possibly the single most important coaching decision Kill and offensive coordinator/line coach Matt Limegrover made all year.
The change wasn't simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic: prior to the Purdue game, the Gopher OL gave up 13 sacks in 5 games. In the last 7 games, the OL surrendered just 8 sacks total. The same could be said about the defense, since they recorded 18 of the season total 19 sacks in conference play.
The improved protection from the offensive line made a clear difference in MarQueis Gray's confidence at quarterback, who notched his best two games as a passer against Iowa and Michigan State in the following weeks.
CFBZ: Is Marquis Gray the answer at QB or should Minnesota move in a different direction next season?
Fringe Bowl Team: Gray will enter spring practice as the clear #1 and barring injury, will remain the top signal caller next season. True freshman Max Shortell had fleeting moments of excellence in relief duty that made the Gopher fan-base question the coaches' decision to keep playing Gray when healthy, though most of those feelings vanished when he ran into a buzz saw in Ann Arbor. Perhaps folks don't quite realize it yet, but Gray is an elite runner as a quarterback: with 966 rushing yards this season (including sacks counting against rushing yards), Gray trailed only Chandler Harnish at Northern Illinois (another Kill product), Denard Robinson and KSU's Colin Klein for rushing yards by a quarterback among FBS teams. Additionally, only two quarterbacks -- the aforementioned Robinson and Antwaan Randle-El -- rushed for more yards as a Big Ten quarterback in conference history.
CFBZ: Which players surprised you the most this season with their play?
Fringe Bowl Team: I mentioned Bunders before and I think it should be noted that he was a really poor left guard. He didn't have the foot speed, athleticism or quickness to handle premier defensive tackles and was very limited as a run-blocker. Yet, all of the physical attributes that made him a bad guard didn't hinder him at right tackle -- namely, he had more space and time to work with. In the end, he was a better pass blocker than Gjere and that made a huge difference during the second half of the season.
Another two seniors surprised me with solid last years: tight end Collin McGarry and running back Duane Bennett. McGarry didn't have a single career catch before this season, yet turned himself into one of the better blockers on offense and managed to end the year second on the team in receptions. Bennett, who had won then lost the starting RB job at least four times over his career, had a good season doing all the thankless work a coaching staff can ask for, especially blocking and special teams.
CFBZ: What is the lasting memory you will have of this season?
Fringe Bowl Team: Beating Iowa at home for the second consecutive season and seeing the fans rush the field again to touch Floyd of Rosedale. That's the best takeaway from the last two seasons, to be honest.
Of course, watching in horror as Coach Kill writhed in seizure on the sidelines created a lasting (scarring) memory for a much different reason.
CFBZ: Which players are you most looking forward to watching next year?
Fringe Bowl Team: Gray, for obvious reasons.
The Gophers lose their top two defensive tackles, middle linebacker and free safety to graduation this year, so who steps up to replace them is the biggest focus for the defense in the offseason. Junior-to-be Ra'Shede Hageman was a former Under Armour All-American tight end who converted to defensive end during his redshirt season and made another transition over to defensive tackle this season. After surviving Kill's dog house, he showed flashes during the second half of the season as a reserve, ending the year with a two-sack, forced fumble performance against Illinois.
I'm most excited to see the development of the offensive line and the crop of underclassmen currently in the program. When healthy, Tommy Olson at left guard and Gjere at right tackle are excellent run blockers; each started at least 3 games and both will only be sophomores next season. Throw in another 5 linemen who redshirted in the fall and the OL will have good numbers at the position for the first time in years.
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