MINNEAPOLIS – Maybe this is the year. For historically struggling teams like Minnesota, the start of the season always brings the confidence that comes with a spotless record, strong chemistry and perceived improvement.
After finally surrounding themselves with some calm and continuity, the sounds of optimism from the Gophers are louder than usual.
Minnesota is different this year. Its a new mind-set. Different players. New jerseys. Everything about Minnesota is getting better and evolving, sophomore wide receiver Marcus Jones said. Its just time for the program and the team to start winning games. Thats what I believe is going to happen. Thats what we believe as a team is going to happen.
After consecutive 3-9 seasons, the first marked by the firing of Tim Brewster and the second by Jerry Kills seizures, the Gophers have their sights set on a bowl game. Any bowl game. Because that would be a lot better than what theyve been the past two years.
Its not, Can we do it? anymore. Its, We will do it, Jones said. So we feel if we dont get to it, we let ourselves down. We let Minnesota down.
Stiffer competition for starting spots is usually a sign that a team is getting better. The entire roster was divided into different mini teams during the winter strength and conditioning session, and points were awarded for accomplishments in the weight room and subtracted for no-nos like missing a class or arriving late to a meeting.
Guys couldnt wait to get to practice, junior free safety Brock Vereen said. When youre excited to get to practice, youre doing something right.
Beating Illinois to close 2011 gave the Gophers some much-needed self-assurance to take into the offseason. They rallied around the sudden death of former middle linebacker Gary Tinsley. They gained a better grasp of the schemes brought by Kills staff after playing for so many coordinators during Brewsters time.
At each of Kills previous stops, Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, his teams had a better record in his second year. Now the Gophers have their chance to prove theyre not the easy win theyve been for so many the Big Ten opponents the past few years, and it starts with senior quarterback MarQueis Gray.
For me to have a big year is going to determine how this program goes, Gray said. Im going to accept that role and work as hard as I can to make sure we go to a bowl game and come back with that bowl win.
Kill has raved about Grays strides in leadership and poise. As elusive as he is – he rushed for 966 yards and six touchdowns last season – if Gray doesnt scramble as much this year thatll be one sign the offense is in better shape. Replacing Duane Bennett at running back and DaJon McKnight at wide receiver are the two most important issues of training camp on that side of the ball.
The defense is likely where Minnesotas bowl goal will be made or broken.
The Gophers forced only nine turnovers last year, the fewest of all 120 teams at the FBS level. Vereen moved from cornerback to help stabilize a secondary that lost three starters, and senior linebacker Mike Rallis moved to the middle to replace Tinsley.
The season opener is Aug. 30 at UNLV.