MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota coaching staff devised a simple solution to preparing for a season opener full of unknowns, chief among them two new shot-callers stalking the opposing sideline.
To be ready for anything, get ready for everything.
“We’ve got to cover a pretty broad spectrum,” Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “Just prepare for a worst-case scenario.”
Article continues below ...
Having begun game planning last Tuesday, Minnesota gave itself ample time to throw multiple looks at its offense and defense in preparation for Thursday’s season opener against UNLV. With 2013 likely serving as an audition to keep his job, Runnin’ Rebels coach Bobby Hauck hired two new coordinators this offseason.
Each new assistant’s recent history speaks to what the Gophers might see come 6 p.m. Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We anticipate seeing a classical spread offense, but they could very well do what they did last year,” coach Jerry Kill said. “That’s the unusual thing about a coaching staff; I don’t know if Coach Hauck could say, ‘Hey, this is exactly what I want.’ I’m not there.”
Timm Rosenbach took over as the third UNLV offensive coordinator in three years after one season at Montana. Reports out of the desert are that he’s brought the pistol offense with him, which will offer a slight variation from the single back, shotgun sets the Rebels ran last year.
Rosenbach’s 2013 bunch ranked 14th in the FCS in total offense. The Griz variation of the pistol included wide offensive line splits — also similar to what UNLV did last season — a running back that lines up all over the backfield, and a heavy dose of read option.
Racking up 452.3 yards per game, Montana rushed 524 times and passed just on 347 plays. But that was with a dual-threat quarterback — not exactly the first description that comes to mind for UNLV sophomore Nick Sherry.
He worked mostly out of a shotgun-created pocket last season, completing 53 percent of his passes and scoring 16 touchdowns through the air. But Sherry also threw 17 interceptions as a redshirt freshman.
The Rebels aren’t without a ground threat, though.
Halfback Tim Cornett, who gashed the Gophers for 131 yards and a pair of touchdowns in their triple-overtime win a year ago, is back after averaging 94.8 yards per game.
Minnesota can bank on Cornett being a big part of UNLV’s strategy. What its players won’t know until game time though is the tempo with which Rosenbach intends to call plays.
For that reason, the Gophers’ offensive scout team worked at varying paces during fall camp — a no-huddle sequence here, a more traditional drive there.
“We don’t necessarily know what we’re gonna get,” safety Brock Vereen said, “but we’re getting so many looks in practice that hopefully what we see, come Thursday, we’ll have seen it before.”
The Rebels defense may be a bit more predictable. Tim Hauck, Bobby Hauck’s younger brother by 2 1/2 years, takes over at defensive coordinator following three seasons in the NFL coaching defensive backs. He’s worked with secondaries since he took his first job under his brother at Montana in 2004.
With both the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans, he operated under the umbrella of a 4-3 defensive alignment — the same defense UNLV used primarily in 2012.
But that doesn’t mean everything will be the same. The Rebels have to change something after ranking 98th nationally in total defense a year ago.
“Right now, I’d say the element of surprise,” Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson said when asked what concerns him about UNLV’s defense. “They’ve got a new defensive coordinator, so we’re not exactly sure what could happen. We’ve got some film from last year, and we expect them to be semi-similar, but at the same time, they could come out with something completely (new) we don’t know because of that new defensive coordinator, so that’s probably the one thing that causes a little bit of uncertainty for us.”
Claeys runs a similar defensive scheme, mixing in some quarters formations on passing downs much like the Rebels did last year.
While the coaching staff has placed plenty of emphasis on making sure its players aren’t surprised by anything Thursday, they’ve been just as concerned about his own team’s execution.
Most opening days require some shedding of the mental rust, and this one will provide a physical test as well. Kickoff-time forecasts call for high humidity and temperatures in the 90s, which feel higher than 100 on the TCF turf.
“It’s the first game of the year, and I think as a head coach you worry about most teams don’t win games, they lose them,” Kill said. “You’ve got to make sure that you do all the right things from not having false starts to fumbling snaps, line up offsides, having misalignment, missed assignments, blocked kicks, all those fundamental things that you’re seeing in preseason football in the NFL and all those things you probably witnessed when we had camp open. You can’t do that and win games.”