Gophers seem to be on correct path

Now that the Golden Gophers’ 2012 football season is in the books, what do we make of it?

Following Friday’s 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, there seems to be two ways in which Minnesota fans are evaluating the year. Some argue the season was a success, simply because the Gophers made it to a bowl game for the first time since 2009 and improved by three wins over last season’s 3-9 record.

Another view: Sure, the Gophers made it to a bowl, but they finished with a losing record (6-7) and closed out the season with seven losses in nine games after a perfect 4-0 mark in nonconference play.

Count me in the first camp.

Sure, there were games in which Minnesota was far from competitive against some of the Big Ten’s top teams. You could argue that true progress won’t be made until the Gophers can hang with the likes of Nebraska and Michigan. But after going 3-9 the last two years, baby steps were needed for any sort of turnaround. And these were baby steps.

Having been around the team for the past two seasons, I’ve noticed a difference in the attitudes of the players. Last year, there seemed to be a bit of uncertainty among Gophers who didn’t know what to expect from coach Jerry Kill in his first season. The team was trying to get a feel for its new coaching staff, and vice versa. After all, those players had gone through plenty of turmoil during their college careers. A coaching change was simply the latest curveball.

But after a year with Kill and his staff, Minnesota’s players have bought into what their coach is selling. The improvement from 3-9 in Year 1 to 6-7 this year is an indication of that — and echoes what Kill has done at his previous stops. When he took over at Southern Illinois in 2001, his team was 1-10 in his first season. One year later, he was 4-8, then 10-2 the following year. At Northern Illinois, Kill went from 6-7 in 2008 to 10-3 in his final season in 2010.

In just two years at Minnesota, Kill has taken a program that was 3-9 two years in a row and in the basement of the Big Ten to a bowl game in 2012.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t work to be done heading into 2013.

One puzzling takeaway from 2012 was how the Gophers handled their quarterback situation. Senior MarQueis Gray began the year as the starter but went down with an ankle injury. In stepped sophomore Max Shortell to relieve Gray, but Shortell also got hurt. That left true freshman Philip Nelson to make his college debut against Wisconsin. He went on to start the rest of Minnesota’s games at quarterback, including the bowl game.

ESPN showed a graphic during Friday’s game that highlighted college football teams using three or more starting quarterbacks this season. Minnesota was one of only two teams to do so and not have a losing record in the regular season. It goes to show that stability at quarterback is key, and Minnesota lacked that in 2012 – partially because of injuries and partially because it never really committed to one player until Nelson got his chance.

Despite his ups and downs this season, there’s every reason to believe Nelson will bring that stability in the coming seasons. With next year’s spring practices and fall camp to fully prepare as the starter, Nelson should make strides as a sophomore. He has the physical tools to thrive at this level, and now it’s just about continuing to adjust to the college game.

The one thing Nelson will need to take that next step, though, is a reliable receiving unit. Minnesota lost its top wide receiver, A.J. Barker, who quit the team very publicly late in the season. He had a team-high 30 catches for 577 yards and seven touchdowns. After Barker, there was a steep drop-off in production. Junior Derrick Engel, who had a breakout game Friday, was next with 375 yards. Isaac Fruechte had 19 catches, and sophomore tight end Drew Goodger had three touchdowns. Someone will have to step up as a go-to target for Nelson in 2013.

Friday’s performance against Texas Tech should be encouraging to Gophers fans. Minnesota came into the game as a heavy underdog. Very few people gave the Gophers a chance against the high-powered Red Raiders offense, especially after Minnesota sputtered down the stretch of the regular season. Minnesota’s passing defense was a pleasant surprise this year, and that unit stood tall against Texas Tech. The Gophers’ running game was also very effective, and both running backs — sophomore Donnell Kirkwood and freshman Rodrick Williams — will be back next year.

In a game no one thought they would win, the Gophers were competitive until the very end. As Minnesota continues to rebuild its program, the Gophers will probably be underdogs for a little while longer. But Kill — an underdog himself, having survived cancer and living with a seizure disorder — has turned underdogs into contenders in the past. Two years into his tenure at Minnesota, he appears to be doing so once again.

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