Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Minnesota Gopher Football: What We Know

As college football kicks off this week, it's time to look at the teams local people (allegedly) care about. One of those is Minnesota. The Gophers open up Thursday at home against UNLV. You might remember last year, when Minnesota needed three overtimes to topple the tenacious (and awful) Runnin' Rebels.

Before you settle in for kickoff of the season, here is what you need to know about the Gophers.

Philip Nelson will be better.

Not many top-flight college football teams start true freshmen at quarterback and succeed. Nelson was not really one of them, but the seven games he got to start provided him with valuable experience heading into a big sophomore season. No more does Nelson have to stand in the shadow of athletic enigma MarQueis Gray, who has moved on. Max Shortell, who played as a freshman in 2011, has transferred.

This is Nelson's team. Look for him to take advantage of the confidence his coaches have shown in him.

I'm not proclaiming Nelson a Heisman candidate or anything, but he will improve as he learns more about the level he's playing at.

He should have strong protection from right tackle Josh Campion and left tackle Marek Lenkiewicz (or Ed Olson, I guess), so the hope is he won't be harassed into bad decisions and take a lot of unnecessary hits.

Nelson has a good arm, is a good athlete, and has a better grasp of the offense than ever before. With Mitch Leidner available to play but not pushing Nelson, this is his time.

I don't know who Nelson will throw to.

Part of Nelson's development will be the Gophers coming up with some quality options on the outside. There have been times recently where Gray, a freaking quarterback, looked like the team's best option at receiver. Guys like Derrick Engel and Isaac Fruechte are the best experienced receivers, and they combined for 34 catches last year.

Minnesota figures to be quite young in the passing game. Engel and Fruechte are both juniors, as are receivers KJ Maye and Logan Hutton. Tight ends Drew Goodger and Logan Plsek are both sophomores.

Someone has to step up and give Nelson a target, or all of this is naught.

Donnell Kirkwood can play.

He didn't crack 1,000 yards, but Kirkwood became the most valuable player on Minnesota's offense last year. The Gophers averaged a decent 150-plus yards per game, but didn't do well in short-yardage or goal line situations.

Kirkwood isn't a big dude, and neither is promising freshman Berkley Edwards (he's out at least the first game with an ankle injury). But they have speed to burn, and given how Jerry Kill limited Kirkwood's snaps in the spring sessions and fall camp, he should be plenty fresh and ready to be Minnesota's bell-cow back this fall.

Minnesota has to improve in short yardage, but at least part of that comes from blocking, and the offensive line is big, experienced, and more talented than last year.

Ra'Shede Hageman is legit.

There are no guarantees in football, especially for linemen, where one guy falling onto your leg can alter your career.

But Hageman is developing into a guy who will get his name called by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at the 2014 draft. In other words, he is a budding first-round pick.

Hageman had six sacks last season, and appeared to finally start tapping into his huge potential. The 311-pounder provides the Gophers with a lot of push in the middle. He's a great athlete for his size, and he has a better understanding of how to beat blockers.

I look at Hageman and see a guy who could potentially play as an under tackle in a 4-3 defense, or as a defensive end in a 3-4 look. In Minnesota's 4-3, he's a great fit as a tackle. If he continues to fulfill his potential, Hageman will win some awards this season, and he will get paid next spring.

The schedule is entirely too difficult for the Gophers to be a contender.

The team has too many holes. I like Nelson, but don't know that he's a star yet. The wide receiving corps is really thin and lacks a true star. Despite Hageman's presence, there isn't enough play-making ability in the front seven for the defense to take a huge step forward.

Oh, and the Gophers will come off a month's worth of non-conference layups to face this Big Ten gauntlet: Michigan (away), Northwestern (away), Nebraska (home), Penn State (home), Wisconsin (home), Michigan State (away).

The talent is there for seven wins, which would be nice, or eight wins, which would be a breakthrough. But 6-6 isn't out of the question, and how would "Gopher Nation" react to that?

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