MINNEAPOLIS – Touting a strong finish to the previous season is a natural talking point, when applicable.
At Minnesota, momentum has been trumpeted all summer, despite a bowl game loss last year that left them with a 6-7 record, and only one victory after Halloween. This was still a sign of progress for a program languishing in the Big Ten’s bottom tier for a large part of the last half-century. The Gophers are determined to build off that despite being in the conference’s rugged Legends Division.
After back-to-back 3-9 finishes, the Gophers won all four of their nonconference contests in 2012, blew out Purdue and beat Illinois on the road to return to the postseason with a decent showing against Texas Tech. In coach Jerry Kill’s third year, though, another 2-6 record in Big Ten play won’t perpetuate any optimism, no matter how competitive they might be or how tough the opponents are.
The next step is we need to keep climbing the mountain, Kill said, declining to specify a tangible measure of success for Minnesota this season.
Here are five things to know about Minnesota this season:
1. Hageman is hungry: The best player Minnesota has might be senior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound former high school basketball star and converted tight end. He had six sacks last season, his first as a starter. With the frame and the athleticism to flourish into a legitimate NFL prospect, the soft-spoken Hageman has also grown into a leader for the Gophers.
2. Nelson needs to improve: Philip Nelson started seven games as a freshman, but quarterback is one of many positions that must be settled this fall. Freshman Mitch Leidner is expected to be the backup, but rookie Chris Streveler is another promising prospect.
Nelson completed only 49.3 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.
3. Wide receivers wanted: Those athletes Nelson would love to let take over include Andre McDonald, whose freshman year was washed out by injuries and off-the-field issues. Jamel Harbison, who ripped up his right knee in the season opener, is another candidate, along with freshman Drew Wolitarsky. Derrick Engel and Isaac Fruechte are the most experienced returners, and K.J. Maye is a versatile option.
4. Can Kirkwood crack the four-digit mark? The Gophers used to dominate opponents on the ground, but they haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. With Donnell Kirkwood, who had 926 yards and six touchdowns in 2012, and a returning offensive line, they’re in position to end that streak.
5. Kill keeps on: Kill’s first two seasons have been marked by seizures, some of them on game days, but he has appeared as healthy as ever this summer after taking extra steps to keep his epilepsy under control and changing doctors. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life, Kill said.