Gophers: 5 questions for 2013

After watching from the sidelines as his Gophers lost to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl, coach Jerry Kill (middle) has important decisions to make, including what to do at quarterback and wide receiver.

Troy Taormina/Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — With the BCS National Championship set to be played Monday night, the college football season will soon be over. For the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, the 2013 season ended with a 21-17 loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27. Jerry Kill’s team now begins preparing for 2014, with spring practices just a few months away. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the five biggest questions the Gophers must answer heading into next season.

1. Who will start at quarterback?

This will arguably be the biggest question Minnesota needs to figure out this spring, as inconsistent quarterback play plagued the Gophers for much of 2013. It didn’t help that Minnesota flip-flopped between sophomore Philip Nelson and redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner between — and even during — games. Such was the case in the Texas Bowl, as Nelson was just 2-for-7 for 18 yards while Leidner’s 205 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-22 passing helped spark the Gophers in the second half. Both quarterbacks possess the ability to run; Leidner’s 407 rushing yards were second on the team, while Nelson was third with 364. Their ability to throw, however, was iffy at best. Leidner completed 55.1 percent of his passes (43-for-78) while Nelson was a 50.5-percent passer (94-for-186). In order to have success in 2014, Minnesota will likely need to pick one quarterback and stick with him. After the 2013 campaign, neither seems to have a huge leg up in the competition. This spring could go a long way in determining whether Leidner or Nelson will line up under center on Aug. 28 against Eastern Illinois.

2. Which receivers can step up as playmakers?

When senior Derrick Engel went down with a knee injury late in the year, Minnesota was left with a void at the wide receiver position. A pair of true freshmen were forced to play additional snaps, and while Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky made big strides in their first seasons with the Gophers, the wide receiver position remains a major question mark. One can only assume that both Jones and Wolitarsky will be even better as sophomores now that they have a year of experience under their belts. But someone else will have to step up alongside them at wide receiver. The Gophers are high on freshman Eric Carter, who redshirted during the 2013 season. He could be one to watch in 2014 but he’ll be inexperienced. Isaac Fruechte will be a senior and arguably the leader among this group. K.J. Maye has the potential to be a dynamic player as a slot receiver but he had just seven catches this year; the Gophers need to get the ball into his hands more next season. Meanwhile, Andre McDonald didn’t play at all this year due to a suspension. It remains to be seen if he can contribute to this offense — or if he will even play at all for Minnesota. In order to help out the quarterback conundrum, the Gophers’ receivers will need to take a collective step forward in 2014.

3. How will Minnesota replace Ra’Shede Hageman?

Hageman could be a first-round pick in May’s NFL Draft and was arguably one of the best defensive players Minnesota has had in years. At 6-foot-6, 311 pounds, Hageman was a physical presence on the defensive line. While his sack numbers dropped during his senior season, the third-team All-American still impacted plenty of games with 13 tackles for loss and eight pass breakups. Now the Gophers must find a replacement for him on the line. Theiren Cockran could assume the title of Minnesota’s best defensive lineman as a junior in 2014, although he plays defensive end. It also will be interesting to see if Cockran can repeat that production without the benefit of playing next to Hageman. Redshirt junior Cameron Botticelli flew under the radar a bit as the Gophers’ other defensive tackle. He could be poised for a big senior season after recording 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack this year. Scott Ekpe will be a junior in 2014 and should see increased playing time at defensive tackle. Still, it’ll be hard for Minnesota to replace a player of Hageman’s caliber; it’ll be up to the rest of the defensive line to pick up the slack in his absence.

4. Will things change for Jerry Kill?

Kill’s health problems have been well-documented during his three seasons as the Gophers’ head coach. He suffered a seizure on the sideline of his first home game at TCF Bank Stadium back in 2011, and had another this past September at halftime of Minnesota’s game against Western Illinois. He eventually took time away from the team — which he refused to call a leave of absence, though it essentially was — in order to focus on his epilepsy treatment. He eventually spent the rest of Minnesota’s 2013 season watching from the coaches box. It wasn’t until the second half of the Gophers’ bowl game that Kill returned to the sideline for the first time in months. During his time off, he scaled back the amount of work he did during the week in order to let his body rest. He was still at Minnesota’s practices but was not always at the forefront. Kill continues to work with doctors and he remains optimistic that he will one day be seizure-free. Whether or not Kill returns to his full head coaching duties to start 2014 remains to be seen, but it’s hard to think Kill won’t do everything he can to return to normalcy for his fourth year at the helm.

5. Will Kill’s defensive coordinator return in 2014?

While Kill was away from the team, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys assumed the role of acting head coach. That meant Claeys — who has been on Kill’s staff for nearly two decades — moved from the coaches box down to the sideline. Thanks in part to Claeys, Minnesota won four games in a row against Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State to improve to 8-2. Those four straight victories brought attention to Claeys for the work he did, and also raised the question of whether he could — or would want to — leave the program to pursue a head coaching opportunity. As we’ve already seen with several schools, now is the time of year when coaching vacancies are filled. Claeys has been loyal to Kill over the years, moving upward from school to school as they’ve rebuilt programs together. At the same time, Claeys admitted before the bowl game that he’d be silly not to listen if a job offer comes his way. He already turned down one job this season, he said, and there’s a chance more could be offered to him this offseason. It would be a big loss for Kill and Minnesota if Claeys does decide to leave. Given his loyalty over the years, though, it’s far from a sure thing that Claeys would take a job elsewhere.

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