Gophers look to trump Rebels in Las Vegas

Gophers look to trump Rebels in Las Vegas

Published Aug. 29, 2012 11:55 p.m. ET

LAS VEGAS — The time is here for the University of Minnesota football team. It's time to see if this Gophers squad is improved off consecutive 3-9 seasons. It's time to see if head coach Jerry Kill, like he has at his previous stops, can help a struggling program take a step forward in his second season at the helm.

Minnesota opens up the 2012 season on the road as Kill and Co. will take on UNLV in Las Vegas. The two teams combined for just five wins last season, and the Rebels are a team that hasn't had much, if any, success over the last decade.

The Gophers talked during the spring and again this fall about how this year's team is bigger, quicker and more athletic than the one that won only three games a year ago. Minnesota faithful will get their first chance to see if that holds true on Thursday night in the desert. Here are five things to watch as the Gophers take the field for the first time in 2012.

1. Who will get the bulk of the carries out of the backfield?
Entering fall camp, the starting running back job seemed to be James Gillum's to lose. The junior college transfer, who played two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, had the most experience of any of Minnesota's running backs — albeit not at the Division I level. The Gophers' other options included redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood, sophomore David Cobb and redshirt sophomore Devon Wright. Freshman K.J. Maye, listed as an athlete, also got reps at running back this fall.
While Gillum was the early frontrunner for the starting job, Kirkwood has stood out in fall camp and has caught the eye of his coaches. Plagued by injuries in 2010 and 2011, Kirkwood is finally healthy. If he can stay healthy, he should get a good number of carries this year, starting Thursday at UNLV.
Minnesota doesn't seem to have a problem rolling with a committee of running backs to start the season, but the Gophers' game against the Rebels could dictate which running back could be the featured back in the following weeks.

2. The Gophers feel MarQueis Gray has taken a step forward as both a quarterback and a leader. Now it's time for him to prove it.
Last year was Gray's first season as Minnesota's starting quarterback after spending his freshman and sophomore seasons as a wide receiver. Gray certainly struggled at times, often relying on his legs to make plays when his first or second reads weren't open.
That hasn't been the case this fall. Gray appears more poised in the pocket, letting the plays develop and making the proper reads. His accuracy, which was a concern in 2011, also seems improved. Gray is also a father, as his fiancé gave birth to twins last November. He feels that off-field responsibility has helped him grow as a leader on the field.
Gray will also have to battle the heat on Thursday. Last season in Minnesota's opener against Southern Cal, Gray left the game with cramps. He'll likely be playing in even more heat Thursday as high temperatures could exceed 100 degrees. Playing at night should help with that, but it's something to keep an eye on.
"MarQueis sweats a ton, so we'll have to make sure he takes plenty of fluid in," Kill said. "We're going to make sure that we do everything we can."

3. Can a pair of freshmen help jumpstart the wide receivers?
Minnesota continues to look for playmakers, and the Gophers feel they've found a few in a pair of freshmen wide receivers.
Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison have impressed in fall, and both possess the size and talent to make an impact as freshmen. McDonald is a Minnesota native who played his high school football at Hopkins High School. He originally committed to attend Vanderbilt but decommitted after coaching changes on the Commodores staff. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, McDonald has intriguing size. Harbison, a Charlotte native, was ranked by as a three-star recruit.
Senior Brandon Green figures to be one of Gray's go-to targets, but Minnesota's quarterback may have a few more weapons in McDonald and Harbison. If either sees the field Thursday — and they probably will — it will be their first college action and their first chance to show what they can bring to Minnesota's offense.
"I think we feel better about that position than we did going into the spring," Kill said of the team's wide receivers. "It was a concern, because we weren't making a lot of plays out in the field in some of those things, but I think we've helped ourselves through the recruiting process and then some guys getting healthy."

4. Can Minnesota's defense capitalize on an inexperienced quarterback?
It wasn't until early last week that UNLV coach Bobby Hauck named redshirt freshman Nick Sherry as the Rebels' starting quarterback for Thursday's game. Sherry beat out veteran Caleb Herring, UNLV's starter last season, for the starting job.
As Herring steps under center for his first college game, Minnesota's defense will have an opportunity to show that it's a much-improved unit from 2011. Last year, the Gophers defense recorded just four interceptions, tied for third-fewest among all Division I teams. Additionally, Minnesota only registered 19, third-fewest in the Big Ten in 2011. Will the defensive line and linebackers be able to get their hands on the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Sherry on Thursday?
"I think any time you've got a quarterback like that, you want to keep him off balance and don't want him to get comfortable," Kill said. "I've known Coach Hauck a long time, so I know he's a good ball coach. All the stuff that's being said, you better be prepared for both of (the quarterbacks), not just one of them. So we'll prepare for both."

5. This is a game the Gophers are expected to win. Will they play like it?
Given the recent struggles of both Minnesota and UNLV, it wouldn't be surprising if Thursday's game is decided by a touchdown or less. Still, the Gophers are favored to beat the Rebels. Then again, Minnesota had no business losing to New Mexico State and North Dakota State last season — at home, no less — but the Gophers were upset in both.
Part of rebuilding a program is instilling confidence in the players and the fan base. Minnesota should take the field Thursday with the expectation that it will win. When the Gophers lost to New Mexico State and NDSU last year, they didn't look like a team that expected to win.
That can't happen against UNLV. To start the year with a loss against a lesser opponent, even if it is on the road, would be a highly disappointing way to begin Kill's second season.

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