This is Mitch Leidner's team. How will he handle the responsibility?
The transfer of former quarterback Philip Nelson this past offseason means the keys to the Gophers' offense are firmly in Leidner's hands as he enters his redshirt sophomore season. The Lakeville native split time with Nelson last year and even started a handful of games, but he was never viewed as the team's top quarterback; at best, he was the 1b to Nelson's 1a. Now that he's the clear-cut starter, his teammates have been able to put their faith and confidence in him. He seems to have full support from everyone on the team, but how much does that mean once the games start? Minnesota's offense needs to take a step forward in 2014 in order for the entire team to make that leap to become one of the better teams in the Big Ten. Much of that responsibility rests on Leidner's shoulders -- and his right arm.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY SportsJesse Johnson
Do the Gophers have enough at wide receiver to improve their passing game?
Thanks in part to inconsistent quarterback play in 2013, Minnesota's aerial attack was the worst in the Big Ten with just 148.1 passing yards per game. Part of that had to do with a lack of playmakers at wide receiver, something the Gophers hope they've addressed entering the 2014 season. Sophomores Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones both played as true freshman last year and should factor into the mix. Aside from that, though, Minnesota will need another playmaker to emerge. That could be KJ Maye, whom Kill said had the best fall camp of any receiver. Redshirt freshman Eric Carter could also emerge this year, and redshirt senior Isaac Fruechte should be a reliable veteran amid a group of very young receivers. The pressure will be on this group to step up to give Leidner some weapons to target.
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Minnesota's secondary may be one of conference's best
If there's a strength of the Gophers this year, it's probably the defense. And if there's a strength of the defense, it's no doubt the secondary. While Minnesota will have to replace Brock Vereen -- now a safety with the Chicago Bears -- it has plenty of talent and depth to do so. Safeties Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson are experienced starters. In fact, Thompson has a chance to follow in Vereen's shoes and play at the next level if he puts together a strong senior year. Meanwhile, the cornerback position is also deep and experienced. Eric Murray didn't have an interception last year but did have 10 pass break-ups and will be tasked with defending opposing teams' top receivers. Minnesota had the fifth-best pass defense in 2013. If the secondary lives up to the hype, the defense could be even better than last year's.
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Will the linebackers truly be the weak link on the defense?
This year's Gophers defense has plenty of depth, but there's not much of it at the linebacker position. Damien Wilson, De'Vondre Campbell and Jack Lynn are penciled in as starters, and all three gained playing experience last year. Outside of that trio, though, there's not a lot of experience. Minnesota was counting on transfer Cody Poock, but he's still sidelined with a knee injury. Sophomore Nick Rallis, brother of former Gophers linebacker Nick Rallis, played in 10 games last year but didn't make any starts. The coaching staff has also had high praise for redshirt freshman De'niro Laster and true freshman Jonathan Celestin, but neither has any college experience. If Minnesota's linebacker corps struggles, the defense could suffer as a result.
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The three-year plan worked for Kill and Co. What about Year 4?
At Kill's previous stops at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, his teams' records improved each year through his first three years. The same held true at Minnesota as the Gophers went from three wins in Kill's first year in 2011 to six wins and a bowl game berth in 2012 to an impressive eight wins last season. The expectations in Minnesota have been raised for Kill and his staff after two straight bowl games. His players have fully bought in to Kill's plan, and most fans believe he is the right man for the job after the previous coach left the program in shambles. It won't be easy to repeat the eight-win season from a year ago, but Kill's stock will continue to rise if he can deliver a repeat of last year.