MINNEAPOLIS — In coach Jerry Kill’s third year at his previous schools, the programs took a big step in the right direction. Will the same thing happen in Kill’s third year at the University of Minnesota? Time will tell, but the 2013 campaign begins Thursday when the Gophers open the season with a home game against the UNLV Rebels at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota is looking to follow up its appearance in a bowl game last year with an even stronger season this year. Here are five things to watch for in Minnesota’s season opener Thursday against UNLV.
1. Can QB Philip Nelson set the tone early on?
As is often the case, all eyes will be on the starting quarterback Thursday when Minnesota takes the field. Nelson, the sophomore quarterback from Mankato, Minn., will be under center Thursday as the starter, a role he was thrust into that role midway through his freshman season with mixed results. After several lackluster performances to close out the regular season, Nelson threw for 138 yards and two touchdowns in Minnesota’s bowl game loss to Texas Tech.
Now is Nelson’s chance to assert himself as the Gophers’ quarterback of the next few years, and he can make a statement with a solid effort in the season opener. Last year, quarterback MarQueis Gray passed for 269 yards and a pair of touchdowns (both in overtime) to help the Gophers top UNLV. Nelson doesn’t necessarily have to put up those same numbers Thursday if he wants to win, but he’ll need to be efficient. He showed the ability last year to make plays with both his right arm and his legs. Now’s the time for Nelson to demonstrate how much better he’s gotten since his baptism by fire as a freshman.
2. The Gophers didn’t play like a team favored to beat UNLV in last year’s meeting. Will they on Thursday?
In reality, it shouldn’t have taken three overtimes for Minnesota to leave Las Vegas with a win over the Rebels last year. That same UNLV team went on to win just two games in 2012, but it nearly could have been three if the Gophers had slipped up. Minnesota is two-touchdown favorites to win Thursday’s season opener, but the Gophers need to play like a team that is expected to win.
They didn’t do that last year and limped away with a victory. In order to get the 2013 season off on the right foot, Minnesota needs to take control of Thursday’s game early and never give the Rebels a chance to hang around. UNLV hasn’t won on the road in ages — since Oct. 24, 2009, a 22-game skid — and the Gophers don’t want to be the team that snaps that dubious streak.
3. Who will emerge as the winner of the special teams battles?
Kill remained noncommittal leading up to Thursday’s game as to who his place kicker and punter will be for this season (or at least for the start of the season). Senior Chris Hawthorne, who lost his starting job last year to Jordan Wettstein, was listed as the team’s top kicker on the depth chart that was released Tuesday. However, he by no means has the job locked up for the season.
Meanwhile, the punting game is where things get interesting. Four different punters competed for the job in fall camp, and there was not a No. 1 punter listed on the depth chart. Christian Eldred handled the punting duties last year but posted less than spectacular numbers (38.1 yards per punt, ninth in the Big Ten). Three others — Peter Mortell, Dan Orseske and Ryan Santoso — were all competing for the job as well. Santoso is a true freshman and is an intriguing one to watch at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, but he can punt as well as kick.
4. Which freshmen will make an early impact?
The Gophers aren’t afraid to take the redshirt off several freshmen, partly out of necessity. They did it last year, although a few freshmen — including Nelson — didn’t see their first action until midway through the year. Thursday will be the first opportunity to see some of these freshmen in action if Kill and his staff decide to play them.
So which freshmen might we see on the field Thursday? There are several who have received high praise from Kill and his coaching staff, including wide receivers Eric Carter, Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. True freshman Hendrick Ekpe — whose older brother, Scott, is also on the Gophers — should also be in the rotation at defensive line. Speedy running back Berkley Edwards is another freshman who impressed in fall camp, but he’ll be sidelined Thursday with an ankle injury.
5. What kind of crowd will be there to take in the season opener?
There’s plenty going on in the Twin Cities on Thursday. The Minnesota Twins play the Kansas City Royals at noon on the other side of town from campus. The Minnesota Vikings play their final preseason game at the Metrodome on Thursday night, while the Minnesota State Fair is in full swing. The Gophers, however, are hoping they will be the main attraction in town on Thursday.
Kill even wrote notes (which were posted on the team’s Facebook page) to excuse fans from leaving work early, getting out of other social engagements or skipping out on chores in order to attend Minnesota’s game at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers didn’t sell out last year’s home opener, and the timing of the 2013 opener isn’t ideal. With four pro sports teams in the Twin Cities, the U of M will never be top dog in town. But there’s no reason Minnesota shouldn’t draw a good crowd for Thursday’s opener.