Gophers defining progress as consistency
By Jesse Temple
CHICAGO — Progress is measured in different increments at a college football program coming off a three-win season. For the University of Minnesota, taking a step toward respectability would be considered a substantial advancement.
Whether respectability means earning a bowl bid or simply competing more frequently remains to be seen. But Gophers linebacker Keanon Cooper is among those who understand what is required to move in that direction.
"Consistency," Cooper said Friday during Big Ten media days. "It's something that we haven't had in a long time in Minnesota."
Last year, for example, the Gophers suffered inexplicable losses to New Mexico State and North Dakota State. By the end of the season, they had beaten both Iowa and Illinois.
Those victories against Big Ten foes give Minnesota confidence despite finishing 2011 3-9 overall and 2-6 in conference play. The assimilation to coach Jerry Kill's methods as he begins his second season is equally important.
"He has an old-school mentality," Minnesota offensive lineman Ed Olson said. "He knows what he's doing. Everyone has bought in. I think it's going to be great."
According to Cooper, it took some time to find that "buy-in" factor last season. The Gophers struggled with an inability to adjust quickly during week-to-week preparation under a new coaching staff.
"The beginning of the season was just too much in the playbook, so they had to simplify it a little bit," Cooper said. "Practices were too long. So the coaches had to see what type of style of practice was best for us. We also had to learn what they expect out of us. It was just a lot of mish-mashing. Toward the end of the year, we caught on to that and were able to prepare better."
Specifically, Cooper said the coaching staff cut the playbook by two-thirds to make it easier for players, and the on-field results improved.
This season, Minnesota returns 13 starters on offense and defense, led by quarterback MarQueis Gray. And for the first time since he was a junior in high school, Gray will have an opportunity to prepare as a quarterback for a full season.
Gray was a wide receiver for Minnesota during his first two seasons before making the switch last year as a junior. He also missed the majority of his senior year of high school because of a broken bone in his non-throwing arm.
"Going back to quarterback is not easy," Gray said. "It does take time. Week in, week out, I've improved. You can see it throughout the film. I know that for us to be a bowl-caliber team, I will need to be at my best each week."
A year ago, Gray passed for 1,495 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also was the team's leading rusher with 966 yards and six touchdowns.
The only returning wide receiver with a touchdown reception is Brandon Green, who caught 15 passes for 190 yards with one touchdown. But Gray should find help in the backfield this season with the addition of junior-college transfer James Gillum, who rushed for 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns last season while playing at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
"We've been down so long," Gray said. "There's no reason why we shouldn't go up."
Defensively, linebacker Mike Rallis is the team's leading returning tackler after recording 83 tackles a year ago. Cooper is second among returning players with 77 tackles.
Kill's on-field seizure last season has been well-documented, as has the heart-related death of former Minnesota linebacker Gary Tinsley, who was found in his campus apartment in April.
But the Gophers are using those setbacks, particularly Tinsley's death, as a rallying point. Gray said the team was playing the season for Tinsley and would honor him in several ways throughout the season.
"We have a lot of things to remember GT," Gray said. "We have the stickers on our jersey, a big mural painting as soon as we walk into our locker room and a scholarship in his name. At the end of the season, we're going to have a trophy for one of the guys to represent GT."
Cooper, Tinsley's roommate, believes the best way to honor a fallen teammate is to play up to the team's potential on Saturdays for the first time in years.
"If we play to the best of our abilities, it's going to be good enough to win games," Cooper said. "It's just staying focused, every guy knowing their role and playing to their potential."
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