Tyler Mason’s Sept. 18 Gophers mailbag

Last weekend was a memorable one for the Gophers football team, although not all for good reasons. 
While Minnesota beat Western Illinois to improve to 3-0, Gophers coach Jerry Kill suffered a seizure on the sideline at halftime and was taken to a local hospital. Kill has since returned to work and wants to put his latest seizure behind him. 
Meanwhile, the Gophers also lost starting quarterback Philip Nelson to a hamstring injury early in the second quarter and had to use redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner. 
The bottom line out of all of it, though, is that Minnesota is 3-0 and now prepares to host a tough San Jose State team this Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. I answered your questions leading up to Saturday’s game in the latest edition of the weekly Gophers mailbag.
Q: I have been a Gopher fan since the 50s and I do not see much improvement in this team from past teams. I think Coach Kill is a fine man and probably a very good coach but I wonder: how do you get the best players to attend Minnesota when you have this major health problem? The Gophers play in a great city and have a great new stadium, so I think that they need a coach who can be on the sidelines the complete game.
–Alan Tiseth, Chatham, Ill.
A: Coach Kill’s health has obviously been the biggest Gophers topic of conversation since he suffered a seizure during Saturday’s win against Western Illinois. There has been much said about whether or not Kill — who has epilepsy — should continue to coach if his health detracts from his ability to do the job.
As far as I’m concerned, I believe Kill should absolutely be allowed to continue to coach the Gophers. As he said Tuesday, it’s not about the head coach. It’s about the players. And so much of what a coach does in terms of actually teaching and leading his team doesn’t take place Saturdays; it happens in the days leading up to a game. As far as we know, Kill has never suffered a seizure during practice and has missed very minimal time as a result of his seizures since he took the job in 2011. He’s always seemed to bounce back quickly. After Saturday’s seizure, he was back in the office Monday morning.
You mentioned the issue with recruiting. From all the current players I’ve talked to about Kill’s condition, zero of them see it as a problem. They all support Kill 100 percent. Safety Brock Vereen went so far as to say Kill is the best thing to happen to Minnesota’s football program in years. It’s evident that his players love playing for him and they’ve learned by this point that his epilepsy is merely something he has to live with every day. In a way, his ability to coach despite suffering from epilepsy could be viewed as inspiring to potential recruits. 
I understand your point about players wanting their coach to be on the sideline for the entire game. At the same time, the best way to attract better recruits is to win. Until Minnesota is competitive in the Big Ten, the Gophers will struggle to compete in recruiting. Kill and his staff have done a fine job so far of keeping some of the state’s best talent, including Nelson and Leidner, in Minnesota. While there may be a recruit or two who sees Kill’s epilepsy as a detractor — and, sadly, there may be coaches who use it against Kill in the recruiting game — I don’t think it will have as big of an impact in recruiting as most people believe it will.
Q: Has this team shown you anything to suggest it will top last season’s 6-win mark?
–Willy, St. Paul, Minn.
A: I do believe that Minnesota is getting better every year under Kill. While the Gophers also started out 3-0 last year, this year’s 3-0 feels different. Minnesota had to grind out a win against a bad UNLV team last year to earn a win on the road. One year later, the Gophers eventually pulled away from those Rebels for a 51-23 rout. They also looked impressive in a 23-point road win against New Mexico State. Last weekend’s game against Western Illinois was a little too close for comfort for at least the first half, but Minnesota never appeared in danger of losing to an FCS team.
I think one of the biggest improvements I’ve seen has been in the running game. Even without starting running back Donnell Kirkwood, Minnesota has been able to develop into a run-first team. In fact, their 258.7 rushing yards per game ranks fourth among Big Ten teams. Sophomore Rodrick Williams has stepped up big in Kirkwood’s absence, and David Cobb has shown that he can carry some of the load as well. Minnesota’s quarterbacks have also been a big part of the running game, which wasn’t necessarily the case last year after MarQueis Gray was injured.
The other thing that’s impressed me so far has been the Gophers’ ability to make big plays — and turn those plays into points. Already, they’ve had a pair of kick return touchdowns, a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, and a pick-six on defense. Last year’s squad didn’t seem nearly as opportunistic. Of course, these types of plays are often fluky, but Minnesota has made the most of them when they’ve happened.
With all that said, I think it’s hard to fully gauge the progress Minnesota has made simply because of the competition it’s faced. None of the first three opponents were teams that should have beaten the Gophers. The fact that Minnesota won all three games comfortably is a good thing, but beating up on teams like UNLV and New Mexico State doesn’t prove a whole lot. It won’t be until the Gophers get to Big Ten season in two weekends that we really see just how much better this team is compared to last year’s 6-win squad. A victory over Iowa in the Big Ten opener is certainly possibly, which, if Minnesota takes care of San Jose State this weekend would improve Kill’s team to 5-0. The schedule gets much tougher after that, but the Gophers certainly could sneak a few more wins during Big Ten play. I said before the season that seven wins isn’t unattainable, and I still believe that through the first three games.
Q: Where has Philip Nelson shown improvement from where he was at last year?
–Brian, Eden Prairie, Minn.
A: As a true sophomore, Nelson certainly has plenty of areas in which he needs to improve. But we are seeing the former Mankato West standout taking steps in the right direction during his senior year. The biggest area I’ve seen him make that leap has been in his ability to run. That was always a part of his game in high school, but he only wound up rushing 69 times for 184 yards (2.7 yards per carry) in seven games last season. Already through three games (really, two and a half, since he was injured last week in the first half), Nelson has gained 221 yards on 33 carries, a 6.7-yard average. He looks more confident as a runner and has been able to read defenses better and make the right decision on when to tuck the ball and run. We didn’t see him explode for any big gains last year, but he’s already scored a 48-yard touchdown (one of three touchdowns on the ground) so far this year.
With that said, we’ve seen only marginal progress in Nelson’s passing ability early this year. He hasn’t been asked to throw much yet this season, going 21-for-41 for 245 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. His accuracy is slightly better than it was a year ago — 51.2 percent vs. 49.3 percent — but the difference is marginal. The only time Nelson has surpassed 200 yards passing in his young career was last year against Purdue, but he had wide receiver A.J. Barker to throw to in that game (Barker caught five passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns before suffering an injury). Since Barker left the team, Nelson has lacked a big-play, go-to receiver. We’ve seen a rather conservative passing attack from the Gophers. I’d like to see Nelson fire downfield a bit more.
Q: What skills does Mitch Leidner bring to the table that maybe Phil Nelson does not, and vice-versa?
–Kelly, Minneapolis
A: I mentioned Nelson’s ability to run the ball, and I think that’s the biggest thing he brings that the redshirt freshman Leidner doesn’t quite have. That’s not to say Leidner can’t run the ball. In fact, he’s got great speed for a quarterback his size. But his decision making on when to run the ball isn’t quite where Nelson’s is. Leidner admitted that he didn’t run much as a pocket quarterback at Lakeville South High School, saying that his longest run was maybe 15 yards. He played sparingly in Minnesota’s first two games but saw plenty of action last Saturday when Nelson injured his hamstring. He ran the ball 17 times for 64 yards in that game, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry. 
At 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, Leidner is the bigger of the two quarterbacks. Nelson measures 6-2 and weighs in at 215 pounds. Kill likened Leidner to former Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, who was similar in size at 6 -5, 226 pounds.
I haven’t seen enough of Leidner’s arm yet — he’s thrown just eight college passes — to confidently say how it compares to Nelson’s. I will say that I believe the Gophers could successfully incorporate both quarterbacks into the offense at the same time, perhaps using Leidner to spell Nelson. 
Q: Am I playing myself into the first round of the NFL Draft?
–Ra’Shede Hageman, Dinkytown
A: Good question, “Ra’Shede.” There’s no question that Hageman, the Gophers’ senior defensive tackle, will be drafted next year to become the first Minnesota player drafted since 2010. The question is now a matter of when he’ll be taken.
If you look at mock drafts — although it’s still very early in the season — many see the 6-foot-6, 311-pound Hageman as a first-round pick. CBSSports.com has him going either 19th or 22nd overall. Sports Illustrated, meanwhile, does not currently project Hageman as a first-rounder in its outdated mock draft. Nor does Shawn Zobel at DraftHeadquarters.com. Meanwhile, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. doesn’t list Hageman on his list of the top 40 NFL prospects.
Hageman obviously has the size to play at the next level. He’s certainly an intimidating force on Minnesota’s defensive line. Through three games, Hageman has 14 tackles — including 4.5 tackles for loss — and picked up his first sack of the season last weekend against Western Illinois. He’s also shown a knack for blocking field, as he’s blocked two already. One was returned for a touchdown in the season opener against UNLV.
If Hageman continues to put up numbers on the defensive line, he’ll have a shot to be a first-rounder. I’d think his sack totals will need to increase a bit from last year’s six sacks to really make him stand out among other defensive linemen. With his size and a solid track record, Hageman will be appealing to NFL teams next April. A strong senior year could turn Hageman into the first Gopher taken in the first round since Laurence Maroney was drafted 21st overall by New England in 2006.

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