The University of Minnesota football team is 4-0 for the season straight year, but now the real tests begin with Big Ten play. The Gophers open up their conference schedule this Saturday against Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium with the Floyd of Rosedale trophy on the line. Minnesota lost at Iowa last year and is looking for revenge against the Hawkeyes. In advance of Saturday’s game, I answered your questions about the Gophers as they look to start 5-0 for the first time since 2004. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions, and be sure to do so again next week.
Q: Once everyone is fully healthy in the backfield, who starts at RB and QB?
–John, Alexandria, Minn.
A: I received a few e-mails wondering about this, especially with regards to the running back situation. It’s a big if for Saturday as to whether all the running backs and quarterbacks will be healthy for the game against Iowa. Head coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday that when quarterback Philip Nelson is 100 percent healed from his hamstring injury, he’ll be the starter. But even if Nelson starts, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Leidner get a handful of snaps. Kill has used a two-quarterback system in the past while coaching at Northern Illinois. As we saw last Saturday, Leidner can be an effective tool in the rushing game. While there are still a few days to go until this weekend’s game against Iowa and the next few practices will be important, it’s looking as if Leidner will start once again in place of Nelson as he recovers from that hamstring injury. Kill said at Tuesday’s press conference that a player doesn’t necessarily have to earn his way back to his starting role once he returns from injury.
“When a kid’s healthy, we’ll put him back in the lineup,” Kill said. “If a player’s a great player and another guy comes in and does a nice job with it, not as good as the other player, you play the one who’s coming back off injury. If you got guys who rise to the occasion, it gives you a little bit different perspective.”
With that being said, assume Nelson will take over the starting quarterback job once he’s 100 percent.
As for the running back situation, I believe that Minnesota will continue to use a handful of players each game as a sort of running back by committee. Because of that, just because a running back starts a game doesn’t mean he’ll get the most carries or be the most productive — as we saw last Saturday when David Cobb ran for 125 yards and two touchdowns as the backup. Another e-mailer, Bryan from Dickinson, N.D., asked me which running back I believe is the best option. From what I’ve seen in the past year and four games, I actually think Rodrick Williams should be the top option, with Cobb and Kirkwood (in that order) sharing the carries as backups. Williams and Kirkwood are very similar backs — bruising types who don’t have breakaway speed — and Cobb gives a change of pace as a bit shiftier and quicker runner.
Q: Do you think we will see a platoon at the QB spot this weekend with Nelson starting and Leidner coming in at certain spots?
–Holly, St. Paul, Minn.
A: I touched on this briefly in response to the last question in that I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Gophers use that two-quarterback system in a game. Specific to the game against Iowa this weekend, however, I’m not so certain that Nelson will see the field. Minnesota has been very cautious with bringing players back from injuries, as we’ve seen by the fact that neither Kirkwood nor Nelson has played since getting injured.
Kill said last Saturday that Nelson would have been able to come in for a snap if Leidner’s helmet came off (which, under the new rules, means a player has to sit out a play), but he would have simply handed the ball off in that situation. The next few days will be important to determine Nelson’s status, but I think the Gophers have enough faith in Leidner to give him another start and let Nelson continue to heal. If Leidner does get injured, Minnesota wouldn’t hesitate to use true freshman Chris Streveler. Moving forward, however, I can certainly see Minnesota using some sort of quarterback platoon with Nelson and Leidner.
Q: Chris Hawthorne looked very poor on Saturday. He was pulling all his kicks to the left. Does Jerry Kill still have confidence there or will he look at someone else?
–Ryan M., Sioux Falls, S.D.
A: Hawthorne lost his starting job in 2011 when he was injured midway through the season. Jordan Wettstein took over and attempted every kick for the Gophers in 2012 as Hawthorne watched from the sideline. Now a senior, Hawthorne — a transfer from North Carolina State — returned to the starting role in 2013. But as you mentioned, Hawthorne has indeed been shaky through four games. He’s missed three extra points and is 5-for-7 on field goals.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, it doesn’t have another kicker on the roster who has experience kicking at the college level. The Gophers have five kickers total, three of whom are true freshman — Justin Juenemann, Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte — while Bemidji native Kyle Fodness is a redshirt freshman. I think Kill still has confidence in Hawthorne (maybe because the rest of his kickers are so young), but I do believe that the coaching staff wouldn’t be afraid to make a change if Hawthorne has another bad game. He has been solid on kickoffs, though, as 10 of his 31 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. If Hawthorne were to be replaced on field goals, the Gophers could still use him for kickoffs.
Q: What do you think the biggest improvement has been since Kill took over the program? Any particular position? Game preparation?
–Jayson, Edina, Minn.
A: There have been several areas in which we’ve seen Kill’s teams improve from his first year in 2011 to now. A big one we’re noticing more this year has been discipline. Through four games, the Gophers haven’t beaten themselves. They lead the Big Ten in fewest penalty yards per game and aren’t turning the ball over very often. A few years ago, Minnesota would often commit costly penalties at crucial times in the game and shoot itself in the foot. We’re not seeing that yet this year.
I also think the running game has been a big area of improvement. Kill and his staff have used the zone option read at their previous schools and brought it with to Minnesota. That system calls for a quarterback who can run the football, and we’ve seen that from both Nelson and Leidner. And for the first time since Kill stepped on campus, we’re seeing quite a bit of depth at running back as Kirkwood, Williams and Cobb are all capable of carrying the ball 15-20 times a game, if needed.
In fact, overall depth may be one of the biggest improvements. When Kill got to Minnesota, the cupboard was bare in terms of depth and experience. The Gophers are still a young team (as Kill often references) but they’re developing quality depth at nearly every position. As Minnesota has already seen, it’s crucial to have adequate backups in case the starters go down with injuries. A few years ago, that wasn’t the case. Now Kill has confidence in multiple quarterbacks or running backs, for example, and has some options to choose from. The offensive line is another unit that has established depth — along with valuable experience. By continuing to recruit his own players, Kill will only add to the depth and solidify a well-balanced roster.
Q: Do you see any of Kill’s staff members eventually going on to become a head coach down the line?
–Rich Neis, Apple Valley, Minn.
A: Many of Kill’s coaches have certainly had opportunities to go elsewhere during their time on his staff, but they’ve stayed loyal to Kill. Some of his assistants have been with him since his first year of head coaching in 1994 at Saginaw Valley State. Others have been by his side for at least a decade, dating back to his time at Southern Illinois. It’s an amazing display of loyalty not only by Kill toward his coaches, but a loyalty the assistants have shown for Kill. They all love working for him and speak fondly of how well he takes care of them, not only as coaches but as friends.
With that said, there’s always a chance a few of them may leave for greener pastures down the line, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. They’re now in the third year of a rebuilding project at Minnesota, and that amount of time is the same length it took to turn things around at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois.
If any of them were to make the move to head coach, it would make sense that it would be one of the two coordinators — offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover or defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, both of whom are 45 years old. Limegrover has been on Kill’s staff since 1999, while Claeys’ tenure with Kill dates back to 1995. Kill has said that he’d never prevent an assistant from pursuing another job, but that loyalty has kept guys like Limegrover and Claeys with Kill. Neither of the two coordinators has any experience as a head coach, save for part of 1994 when Limegrover was the interim head coach at the University of Chicago.
I did a story earlier this year on the coaching staff’s loyalty, and I was blown away by just how tight-knit this group is. As I said, some of them have had the chance to leave for other jobs (although not necessarily head coaching jobs) but have stayed with Kill. I can’t say I’d be shocked if one of his coaches did leave to take a head coaching job elsewhere if the opportunity arose, but I think this staff wants to stick together and contribute to the progress made at Minnesota.