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Forecasting the marriage between Jerry Kill’s offense and MarQueis Gray

What Chandler Harnish’s career and Jerry Kill’s tenure at Northern Illinois tells us about Gray’s upcoming season. (Ed. note: An earlier version of this post mislabeled Northern Illinois University as UNI. The references have been corrected to NIU.)

MarQueis Gray, Golden Gophers, rushing against Ohio State

The newly hired Jim Zebrowski moved into his office at the University of Minnesota earlier this year and began organizing mementos family pictures when a six-foot four, 239 pound, 20-year-old walked in and greeted him. MarQueis Gray was ready to talk football with Zebrowski, his new quarterback coach. He was ready to become a quarterback.

"We started discussing the new playbook right away," Gray said to the Star-Tribune. “I wanted to get it down as soon as I could.”

Last year, Gray was wedged into playing receiver for the Golden Gophers as the previous coaching staff committed to then-senior Adam Weber. It was a debatable decision — and one I’ve written extensively about — but the knock against Gray remained that he was incredibly raw. The theory was that Gray at wide receiver and Weber at quarterback gave the Gophers a better overall team than with Gray at QB and Weber on clipboard duty. That’s debatable, but at any rate, Gray learned a new position on the fly, catching 42 passes and five touchdowns. He also took a few snaps at quarterback — in running situations, mostly — near the end of the year. That will change this year as Gray becomes the unquestioned starter.

In 2011, what can we expect from MarQueis Gray?

At this year’s spring game, Gray was underwhelming. It’s worth noting that but on a team with possibly two established passing targets, Gray found himself throwing to a receiving corps without the first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth receiving targets, who were all sitting out due to injury. But if anyone is that concerned about Gray performing during a glorified scrimmage, he shined at the 2009 spring game, held at the University of St. Thomas. Gray completed eight of 10 passes that day, totaling 141 yards and two TDs. At the time, it looked like he would be a perfect fit for the spread offense Brewster had been touting.

Call it a glorified scrimmage – and really, that’s all it is, but it was a scrimmage that stays with the quarterback to this day, as Gray told the Pioneer Press after this year’s spring game.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Gray said. “That was my first time playing in front of a big crowd, and I just had fun with it. It just let me know in my head that I was able to compete with these guys in Division I football.”

MarQueis Gray will probably never become as a good of a player as he is right now, in my own imagination. Joe Posnanski wrote about this phenomenon during MLB’s Opening Day, when basically every team and every player can accomplish anything you dream up. The Royals can beat the Yankees. In college football, the Gophers could upset USC; the Gophers could upset the Wisconsin Badgers and bring Paul Bunyan’s Axe home for the first time since 2003. Sitting in my office weeks before the season, I can look at the Gophers upcoming schedule and easily trick myself into thinking that six wins doesn’t seem that far away at all.

Like Marcellus Wallace talking to Butch in Pulp Fiction: that’s just pride effing with you. Or this case, hope.* That’s the danger in looking at things through a fan’s maroon-and-gold-tinted glasses. In reality, the Gophers will be lucky to stay within 14 points on the road in Los Angeles. The Badgers might put up 40 points with their running game and the Gophers’ suspect run defense. And of course, most experts would agree that six wins would be a huge accomplishment for Jerry Kill in his first year.

(* If I was Bill Simmons, I would write that the college football preseason is like Andy Dufrene’s undying hope, the idea that a small rock hammer — the Minnesota Gophers — could chisel through several feet of concrete — the Big Ten football schedule — then crawl through 500 feet of shit-smelling foulness that I can only imagine — the BCS system — to eventually escape — or win the Big Ten Conference or National Championship, in this analogy. But, as my readership numbers and tax returns obviously show, I’m not Bill Simmons. In reality, to prolong the Shawshank Redemption analogy, Warden Samuel Norton would have discovered Andy Dufrene’s hole while admiring one of the posters before the tunnel’s completion weeks earlier. In reality, Dufrene would have had a room that adjoined next to another cell, rather than a corner block, which wouldn’t have allowed him to tunnel out of his cell into the depths of the prison. He would have just tunneled into the inmate living in the next cell. In reality, Andy Dufrene – the Minnesota Golden Gophers – continue to get sexually abused by Boggs and the Sisters – Wisconsin, Ohio State, etc. – until he eventually hanged himself, or in this analogy, the head coach gets fired

So in reality, the Gophers will probably not reach bowl eligibility in 2011. It frustrates me to even write that right now. I mean, they can beat New Mexico, Miami (Ohio), North Dakota State, Purdue and Illinois. Northwestern and Michigan are winnable games, too! There are six wins on the schedule! They can do it! See? It’s the beginning of the season.

At the head of this preseason optimism is Gray.

As a fan, I would bet a Guinness or two that Gray will exceed 1,000 yards rushing. I would also bet that the Gophers will be bowl eligible in 2011, but that’s as a fan. I want the Gophers to win games. I want to see the Gophers win back Paul Bunyan’s Ax, I want to see Gray succeed. Coming out of Ben Davis High School in Indiana, Gray began shooting up recruiting lists. At one point, he attracted enough interest that Ohio State fans were wondering if they would try to add Gray alongside Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State never offered). At a Nike Training Camp in 2007, he earned MVP honors. Named to the Army All-American team at the end of his senior year, he impressed among the other all-stars, throwing for 56 yards and a touchdown, while also adding 41 yards and another touchdown on the ground. He received honorable mention from Rivals.com as the game’s best rusher and writers from the site later named him to the Big Ten Signing Day Dream Team. Minnesota doesn’t typically (ever?) attract players with that kind of pedigree.

But those accolades have ended up to be largely the bulk of Gray’s collegiate football awards. Once he got to University Ave., Brewster didn’t treat him as a program savior and throw him directly into the offense, but more like Cameron Frye’s dad treated his 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” That is, Brewster never really let Gray out of the garage or, he at least seemed scared to do so.

There’s no doubt Gray is a Division I talent, but he’s proven himself more as a wide receiver than a quarterback. His athleticism is highlight tape-worthy, he’s a relatively blank canvas as far as a thrower and signal caller. In a few weeks this spring, Gray will need to learn how to correctly diagnose which plays to run: when to throw the ball downfield, when to pitch it back to Duane Bennett or when to simply tuck the ball away and move the chains on his own. According to both Minnesota Gophers Head Coach Jerry Kill and new offensive coordinator Tim Limegrover, Gray’s biggest obstacle in becoming the team’s field general will not be a lack of athleticism, but making mental adjustments. Going into this season, expectations for the Gophers new signal caller range from the insane — Cam Newton was a junior at Auburn and look what they did during his first year! — to the depressing — If Gray is so good, why couldn’t he unseat Adam Weber last year?

But again, realistically, what can be expected from MarQueis Gray? Let’s find out. In prognosticating his season, I needed to consult numbers and an Excel spreadsheet, two tools that remove the maroon and gold bias that tint my corneas. Admittedly, this is more for entertainment than anything else; I’m (sadly) not working with a PECOTA projection system like Baseball Prospectus. I’d love to run compile the statistics of every quarterback from the past 20 years and then sift through for comparable players to Gray in comparable offensive systems, but we don’t have that type of information and time easily accessible.

Instead, I tracked the tendencies of Kill and Limegrover’s offense, specifically the 2008-2010 University of Northern Illinois teams. Then, I compared similar BCS quarterback numbers and lastly tried to prognosticate the Gophers’ success against their 2011 opponents.

I’ve taken a few different metrics and compiled some averages to find that Gray should total at least 2,325 passing yards and 689 rushing yards in his first season. He should gain at least 4.5 yards per carry and in Kill’s offense he should carry the ball 153 times. Gray’s passing yards should come in about 310 attempts and he should measure 7.5 yards per passing attempt.

How were these numbers calculated? Take a look inside the sausage-making factory below.

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Inside the Stat Sausage Factory: The Bottom 10 to Bowl Eligibility: Familiar Ground for Jerry Kill

While speaking to reporters this spring about his squad, Jerry Kill has several times employed his best impression of Coach Norman Dale mixed with Lou Holtz; the “break ‘em down so you can build ‘em back up” philosophy. Listening to Kill’s quotes about the upcoming season, you could picture him shaking his head and squinting his eyes as if he was passing a kidney stone: after the spring game he declined to officially name Gray the starting quarterback, even though he’s the only player who has routinely played with the No. 1 unit and the only player who has seen any action in Big Ten play. (As an example of how close Kill was keeping things to his chest, he declined to roll out a live version of his punt team at the spring game. Which, unless punter Dan Orseske has invented a new way to kick a football, is a pretty straight-forward process.)

It’s old fashioned coachspeak, the preseason humility of breaking down all of your players with boilerplate quotes similar to, “I don’t know if we will win one game” and “(Audible sigh) We still have a lot of work to do before *insert first game.*” While Kill might be laying it on thick, the reality is that he’s walking into a fixer-upper program at Minnesota that is far removed from its turn-key glory days. But it’s a situation he has come across before.

In Kill’s first year with Northern Illinois, he inherited a team that finished 2-10 the previous year, with those wins coming against a Kent State team that finished 3-9 and a hapless Idaho squad. That year’s NIU team lost to a 5-7 Toledo team by a tally of 70-21. In the 2008 preseason, “Quad Blog,” the New York Times college-football blog, ranked the 2008 Huskies 109th out of a possible 119 Division I teams (now called Football Bowl Subdivision). Northern Illinois was also ranked No. 6 on ESPN.com’s “Bottom 10,” a ranking of the worst teams in FBS football. (Worth mentioning: the Gophers, coming off of Tim Brewster’s 1-11 debut season, were ranked 101 by Quad Blog and eighth in ESPN.com’s Bottom 10.)

Even taking Kill’s coachspeak at face value, taking over Northern Illinois wasn’t exactly like Urban Meyer walking into a stacked Florida program, either. As rough as the rebuilding task will be at Minnesota, the talent level in Dinkytown has to be higher than that of the one he inherited at NIU, Minnesota ended the year with two strong conference wins, the Gophers return many key contributors and TCF Field still has its has its new stadium smell and sparkle.

The 2008 NIU team finished 6-7, reaching the Independence Bowl, in Kill’s first year; an improvement of three games. Last year’s Gophers team went 3-9.

The conclusion from reviewing Kill’s history is this:

• Jerry Kill is familiar with building programs and has come to programs before that were in worse shape than the Gophers. He favors mobile quarterbacks, which of course the Gophers have. These similarities allow us to use Northern Illinois’s track record to estimate Gray’s 2011 numbers.

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Inside the Stat Sausage Factory: Breaking down the Kill-Limegrover Playbook

In 2008, Kill put a redshirt freshman at quarterback, Chandler Harnish, a 6’2”, 221-pound, two-star recruit out of Norwell, Ind. He ran a 4.66 40-yard-dash coming out of high school college and, as the Gophers saw firsthand in both 2008 and 2010, is deceptively athletic and can find open receivers when he needed.

While Gray is taller, older, reportedly faster in the 40-yard-dash and was more heralded coming out of high school, both players employ similar skill sets. Even though Gray will be a junior, this year is his first experience with Kill’s offense. It’s actually Gray’s third offense in as many years, but let’s try not to think about that right now. Even though Gray is more experienced and older than Harnish was in 2008, the Minnesota junior starts the year with a similar blank-slate learning curve in having to learn an entirely new playbook.

As Limegrover told 1500ESPN, the offense will be run-heavy, with chances to strike deep when defenses start to stack the box:

"We’re not going to significantly change here. We’re going to run the football," Limegrover said. "One of the things I think we did better as the years went on at Northern was that we got better in the basics and the fundamentals of being able to run the football and protecting the quarterback. Obviously, that made the quarterback that much better because of the strain you take off him. I think we’ll end up taking those kind of baby steps. We’ve got to be able to establish the running game and be physical in the run game. And make sure when we do throw the football that it’s not out of an empty set with receivers running 60 yard fade routes with us not protecting the quarterback. … I would say it will be very similar but we’re going to have to make sure we take care of business in the fundamentals before we get too exotic."

It’s worth noting that last year against the Gophers, Northern Illinois running back Chad Spann ran for 223 yards, as the Gophers did their part in making sure he was named first-team All MAC.

Here’s how Harnish’s first year at NIU went: In 2008, Harnish attempted 211 passes and carried the ball 118 times. He bounced around a bit from the huddle to the bench due to injuries, but he finished the season as the Huskies’ leading passer with 1,528 yards through the air and added another 539 on the ground. He completed 55.9 percent of his passes, for an average of 7.24 yards per completion. Harnish averaged 4.6 yards per rush in 2008, although in 2010, when he had the benefit of a more seasoned backfield and wasn’t as banged up, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry, on 19 more rushing attempts.

In entirety, the 2008 NIU Huskies balanced their 813 offensive snaps between 61.6 percent running plays and 38.3 percent passing plays. Of Kill’s three years at NIU, the offense broke down to about 64 percent running plays and 36 percent passing plays, ranging from almost 66 percent running plays in 2009 to a low of 61 percent running plays in 2008.

This year’s Gophers carry strong depth at running back — one of the few positions where that is the case. Taking into account both the track record of this coaching staff and the Gophers current personnel, it wouldn’t be out of line to forecast a similar split favoring running plays. Three running backs will likely regularly rotate through the lineup, yet the team is still searching for a second receiver to step up in spring practice. The scenario of pounding the ball with Duane Bennett and Lamonte Edwards seems fairly logical, as well as one where Gray ends up toting the rock more than 10 times per game. Once the defense stacks the box against the run, then Gray would try to pick spots downfield with receiver Da’Jon McKnight and tight end Eric Lair when the defenses stack the box.

The main question then becomes: Will the Gophers defense allow the offense to be that run heavy? Or will the offense need to start chucking the ball down field to stave off embarrassing blowouts? Last year’s Gophers team — which before two late season conference wins was a 50-car Amtrak train sliding off of the tracks into an orphanage — managed to maintain offensive splits that leaned toward running the ball, with runs coming 54.2 percent of time versus 45.8 percent passing plays. (After writing that, I’m really not trying to say, “Maybe the difference was all of those draw plays on third and long?” Sigh.)

We can draw the following conclusions from Kill’s offensive history and the Gophers current roster:

• Gray will be looking to run at least half as much as he is looking to pass, a percentage that will be helped by the trend of young scrambling quarterbacks who flee the pocket more often than older or slower passers. Gray’s security blanket will be his ability to run and move the pocket when under pressure. As a junior, he won’t have a problem athletically taking off when the pressure closes in.

• The 2011 Gophers will run an estimated 775 plays on offense, 60 percent of which will be running plays and 40 percent will be passing plays. Both are conservative estimates, with the number of plays based on an average of three years of NIU’s offensive plays and 2010’s Gophers, a team that also tried to run a conservative, run-heavy approach. The percentages of run versus pass came from looking at the average of three years from Northern Illinois, along with the 2010 numbers for the Gophers.

• The Gophers have limited depth at wide receiver, but have a glut of running backs. (I wrote “glut” before DeLeon Eskridge left the team.) As long as they can gain positive yardage, Kill will have bodies to keep sending in to run between the tackles forty times a game. If anything, that offensive breakdown could easily end up slanted more toward running plays.

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Inside the Stat Sausage Factory: Calculating Gray’s rushing statistics

First, we can review NIU’s offensive numbers from Kill’s three years. In those years, the quarterback ran the ball on average 33 percent of all rushing plays. That number went from a high of 38 percent in 2010 to a low of about 28 percent in 2009. Using that conservative estimate of 33 percent and our earlier estimates about 2011’s amount of running plays, we can estimate that Gray will be carry the ball 153 times.

How does that number compare to other offenses? In order to test this estimate against other averages, let’s review Harnish’s carries. Last year, Harnish carried the ball 137 times. To triangulate the estimate, I compiled the top 30 rushing quarterbacks in 2010, arranged by those who had enough carries to qualify against running backs. This gives us the QBs who run by design. The average amount of carries of the top 30 was just under 149.4. Looking at the Gophers offense, with limited depth at wide receiver, Gray unproven as a passer and Kill’s track record, 153 carries fits.

What kind of runner is Gray? He can run, obviously, but in an offense when we expect him to run the ball 33 percent of the time, without an established passing game, his yards per carry shouldn’t be too far above average. The University of Michigan’s Denard Robinson posted huge numbers last year, even after teams got wise that he was going to dash away at a moment’s notice, but he is a much different player than Gray. While Robinson is also a scrambler, he’s 100-meter dash, Usain Bolt fast, while Gray, who stands four inches taller and outweighs Robinson by forty pounds, isn’t opposed to running past or trucking over a defender.

Robinson is more likely to break around the corner and allow the band to start in “Hail to the Victors” than he is to duck between the tackles several times a game and round out small gains. Gray, meanwhile, will likely have to do the latter more often. Gray is more of a Terrelle Pryor-type runner.

Using our earlier peer class, but limiting them to those who carried the ball within 135-165 times and averaged more than three yards per carry, the average yards per carry is 4.47 yards. Hoping to remain on the conservative side of averages, we can list Gray’s projected 2011 rushing average at 4.5 yards.

(* - Here’s that peer class of 15 quarterbacks: C. Kaepernick, NEV; C. Harnish, NIU; T. Martinez, NEB; T. Pryor, OSU; T. Jefferson, AFA; T. Taylor, VT; R. Griffin III, BAY; D. Dasher, MTU; G. Gilbert, TEX; J. Godfrey, UCF; R. Dobbs, NAVY; G. Kinne, TLSA, A. Carta-Samuels, WYO; D. Persa, NW; A. Davis, USM.)

Comparing that to Gray’s Big Ten peers in 2010:

• Nathan Scheelhaase ran 185 times for an average of 4.7 yards per carry,• Taylor Martinez ran 162 times with a gaudy 6 yards per carry,
• Terrelle Pryor had 135 carries with an average of 5.6 yards per carry,
• Dan Persa rounded out things with 164 carries and 3.2 yards per carry.

Gray certainly has the potential to grab the amount of yards of Martinez, Scheelhaase and Pryor, but outright expecting that in his first full season at quarterback represents more of a best-case scenario, than a statistics-based, conservative estimate.

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Inside the Stat Sausage Factory: Charting the Great Unknown: Gray as a Passer

First, we used to the Gophers 2011 schedule and averaged passing yards allowed per game by each opponent. (For North Dakota State, we used only the amount they allowed to a 2010 FBS opponent). Extrapolating that to the Gophers’ 12 game schedule in 2011, the average passer in 2010 would have gotten 2,633 yards. As a point of reference, Adam Weber passed for 2,679 yards last year. Since Gray is tabbed as an above average runner, but a below average passer, 2,633 yards represents our ceiling.

Our second data point comes from the averages of the Minnesota offense, which we took from Northern Illinois from 2008 to 2010. Jerry Kill and Matt Limegrover’s offense averaged about 167 yards passing per game at NIU. Since the Gophers play 12 games in 2011, that gives us about 2,009 yards passing. That figure is higher than Chandler Harnish’s first two years at NIU; in three years he tallied passing totals of 1,528 yards, 1,670 yards and 2,530 yards. Harnish also had an average completion percentage of 61.9 percent and an average of 7.8 yards per attempt in those three years.

Our third data point comes from the same peer class of 15 quarterbacks that ran the ball 135-165 times. Of that group, we found them to have passed for an average of 2,445 yards in 2010. That group had an average completion percentage of 61.8 and an average yards per attempt of 8.1.

We already estimated that Gray will pass 310 times in Kill’s offense. Looking at the yards per attempt, Harnish’s stats jumped last year more than a yard, from 7.5 to 8.7 yards. But 7.5 yards per attempt would be reasonable for Gray’s first season at quarterback. That results in 2,325 total passing yards, which is a conservative estimate for Gray this season.

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Forecasting the season: Bottoming out or on the upswing?

In forecasting Gray’s upcoming season, another important, albeit subjective, concept needs to be considered: The 2012 team will finish better or at least similar to the 2011 team. In considering this important point, that last year’s Gophers bottomed out and that this year’s team will incrementally improve, Gray can easily accomplish these totals. If Gray gets hurt, obviously the Gophers will end up worse off than last year. But if the Gophers outperform their currently cellar-dwelling expectations, Gray will in turn outperform these estimates.

Can he do it? Can the Gophers?

For lack of a better term, I’m hopeful.

Filed under Minnesota Golden Gophers Minnesota Golden Gophers Football MarQueis Gray Jerry Kill NCAA Football Long Reads

  1. elliotmann posted this