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Gopher football 15 for 2012: No. 1 - If someone says MarQueis Gray should be benched, punch them in the mouth

1. MarQueis Gray | QB | Senior | 6'4” 245 lbs.
Passing: CMP    YDS    YPA   TD  INT
         50.7   1,495  7.02  8   8
Rushing: ATT    YDS    AVG   TD
         199    966    4.9   6
Photo credit: Chris Polydoroff/Pioneer Press 

If the Golden Gophers reach a bowl this year, it will be because MarQueis Gray lead them to one. Plain and simple, he’s the centerpiece of the offense, the team’s most talented player and starts at the most important position in all of football. Likewise, if he gets hurt, the reigns are thrown to sophomore Max Shortell, who still needs time to develop into a Division I starting quarterback. Ranking Gray at No. 1 should be a surprise to no one. We don’t advocate violence, but we surely don’t endorse abject stupidity: If someone says the Gophers should move Gray to wide receiver or just bench him outright, go punch them in the face. Here’s why.

There’s no doubt that Gray needs to improve his accuracy – likewise, his receivers will have to make the most of their chances – but once Gray decides to tuck the ball and run, there aren’t many other quarterbacks who can match his mix of speed and power. His 174 rushing yards against Illinois set the school’s single game rushing record for quarterbacks and, even with missing a game, his 966 rushing yards last year set the team’s single-season record for quarterbacks, as well.

Gray rushed for the third-most yards among quarterbacks at the FBS-level last year, although Jerry Kill and Co. would like for the team’s running backs to contribute more to the running game in 2012. Gray was forced into often fleeing the pocket in 2011 due to little protection from a young offensive line that was also battered by injuries. Those absences up front caused several untested and undersized underclassmen into playing time, negatively impacting the running game, leaving Gray as the team’s only real rushing threat. As I wrote in James Gillum’s write-up, the rushing game needs to take a step forward, which in turn should help Gray’s passing and allow him to pick his spots in rushing the ball. Last year’s “scrambling for your life” approach wasn’t exactly by design. Although Denard Robinson and Gray are very different types of mobile quarterbacks, a more ideal situation would be like at Michigan in 2011, where running back Fitzgerald Toussaint complimented Robinson.

Football is a team sport and no one player can be completely responsible for the result of an entire game, but the fact of the matter is that when Gray played well, the team played well and when Gray left the game, the Gophers ended up playing poorly on offense. Without breaking things down to a play-by-play basis and citing somewhat generalities, the one game Gray completely missed ended horribly, a 58-0 drubbing at the hands of Michigan. On the flip side, when Gray played well, the Gophers beat Iowa and Illinois. (Somehow, the Hawkeyes beat the Wolverines. Conventional wisdom and the Sid Hartman Transitive Property of Sports suggested that any team the Gophers beat would have lost to Michigan by an amount somewhere between 50 and 3,000 points.)

Gray also needs to have his hands all over 2012’s offensive game plan because his backups are untested. Max Shortell moved the ball well at first in the season opener against USC, but as the season went on, he was just as inconsistent throwing the ball as Gray and he wasn’t nearly the running threat. When the coach is brand new you can’t necessarily call for his head without sounding completely ridiculous, so the lazy fans’ onus falls onto to the QB when things are going right.  As a true freshman, Shortell ended up compiling a passer efficiency rating and completion percentage that were both worse than Gray’s numbers. Kill likes to switch up his quarterbacks at times and Shortell has the tools to be a decent quarterback eventually, but at this point, he should be no more than a solid backup who only sees the field due to injury.

In 2011, the Gophers were a football team with many issues and several major issues. Gray’s passing accuracy was an issue, but major issues were things like defensive back play, the performance of the offensive line and little help from the running game. Gray has the tools and talent to be the most dynamic quarterback the Gophers have had in at least 20 years.

He will need to be if the maroon and gold hope to reach a bowl in 2012.

Filed under MarQueis Gray 15 for 2012 Minnesota Golden Gophers Football Minnesota Gophers Gopher football Minnesota Gophers football Minnesota B1G football Big Ten Football

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Gopher football 15 for 2012: No. 10 - The emergence of Jimmy Gjere

10. Jimmy Gjere | RT | Sophomore | 6'7” 325 lbs. G ST 5 5

Jimmy Gjere might be the most well-regarded offensive lineman on the Gophers roster; however, he hasn’t been able to fully deliver on the field in his young career. By the same point, it’s important to remember that he’s only entering his redshirt sophomore year. Ideally, Gjere* wouldn’t have taken the field at all last year, instead waiting until his pass protection skills developed.

* - Everyone refers to Gjere as “Jimmy,” although his personal Twitter account says his name is “Jim Gjere.” I feel like we should be calling him “Jim” if that’s what he really wants. Then again, he’s 6-foot, 7-inches tall and weighs more than 300 pounds. Maybe we should call him “Mr. Gjere.”

After starting five games at right tackle last year, Gjere suffered a concussion and missed the rest of the season. Although he was held out of contact during spring practices, Gjere received full medical clearance July 2 to return to the field. He’s expected to start at right tackle and continue to emerge as an an anchor on the offensive line.

As Big Ten blogger Adam Jacobi wrote this spring, “Gjere is, quite simply, the type of player you build an offensive line around.” Gjere came to Minnesota as a four-star recruit out of Irondale High, spurning reported interest from more established Big Ten programs like Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin. When Gjere was a high school prospect, Rivals.com Recuriting Analyst Barry Every wrote that Gjere needed to improve his pass protection skills and that could cause his career to start off slowly. Every continued that Gjere “could become a beast” down the line, though, due to his intelligence, quick feet and imposing size.

So far in Gjere’s young career, Every has nailed it.

Gjere performed well in run blocking situations last year, but his lack of experience came to light as more seasoned pass rushers were able to dominate him in pass protection. But those skills should still develop. He is likely the most agile lineman in the Gophers program and his combination of size and speed is exceptional. Gjere has already gained about 30 pounds of good weight since his freshman year and has demonstrated his intelligence in the classroom – he was named Academic All-Big Ten.

A pessimistic outlook is that Gjere is a major question mark entering this year, due to his raw inexperience and injury issues. An optimistic outlook is that Gjere was pressed into action far too early in his career and that he has recovered from his injury – as much as a person can “recover” from a concussion.

Call me an optimist. I fully expect Gjere to continue to develop as a pass blocker and eventually become a mainstay of an offensive line that could become one of the conference’s best in a few years.

Filed under 15 for 2012 Minnesota Golden Gophers Football college football Jimmy Gjere Minnesota Minnesota Gophers Minnesota Gophers football Gopher football Big Ten Football B1G football

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Gopher football 15 for 2012: No. 12 - Ben Perry

12. Ben Perry | DE | Sophomore (RS) | 6'5” 241 lbs.
12  15   6   2.5   1.0

When a team unveils new jerseys, the stars are obviously going to be those modeling the new threads. If the Twins were to show off new uniforms, they wouldn’t trot out Matt Capps. Well, the Twins probably would trot out Capps, because they’ve pretty much shown an inability to un-invite him from everything including spring training, high leverage pitching situations and the bullpen as a whole. They are willing to trot him out for everything. OK, bad example, but the point still resonates. A team isn’t going to bring out a journeyman back-up to drum up goodwill at what is essentially an expansive dog and pony show.

When the Gophers went through those motions earlier this year, quarterback MarQueis Gray was obviously front and center. Ed Olson, leader of the offensive line, was there. Troy Stoudermire, who had recently been awarded a fifth-year of eligibility, was another one of the players, as well were other defensive leaders and seniors Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis. Senior receiver Brandon Green and senior tight end John Rabe rounded out the group.

Oh, and on the far right, stood sophomore defensive end Ben Perry.

Feel free to tell me that I’m reading too much into Perry’s inclusion – by all means, I likely am – but Coach Jerry Kill could have gone with senior D.L. Wilhite to keep the upperclassmen theme going, he could have tabbed Michael Amaefula if he wanted a more heralded, young defensive end.

But he picked Perry.

I think there’s something to that, or at least something beyond “Well, Ben was in town at the time, a couple of the d-line guys were sick and then the equipment guys misspelled ‘Amaefula,’ so Ben was up there.”

Perry and his fellow freshman defensive end Amaefula emerged from fall practice last year at the top of the depth chart, thereby earning the chance to be thrown directly into the fire of Division I college football. Perry played through a wrist injury and improved as the year continued, as did the defensive line as a whole. Some faint praise exists in that though, because the line had an awful start to the season. During a three game stretch against New Mexico State, Miami (Ohio) and North Dakota State, the Gophers registered one sack for a loss of four yards.

Perry ended the season with only one sack, so there’s obviously room to improve, and as things stand, it seems that the Gophers coaching staff is expecting him to do just that. Again, he was pushed into Big Ten play before he was completely ready and should gain another 10 to 15 pounds of muscle.

While Kill didn’t recruit Perry to Minnesota, Perry seemingly fits the profile of what Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys like to do at defensive end – rush the passer. A two-star recruit out of Texas, Perry resembles the build of six-foot, five-inches tall Jake Coffman, six-foot, three-inches tall Sean Progar and six-foot, four-inches tall Stephen Neal, defensive ends who played for Kill and Claeys at Northern Illinois. It’s worth noting that Kill’s good friend and coaching mentor Gary Patterson also routinely employs tall, speedy defensive ends; Patterson famously moved high school running backs Jerry Hughes and Tommy Blake over to defensive end.

Since Willie VanDeSteeg totaled 10.5 sacks in 2008, the Gophers haven’t had a defensive lineman tally more than three sacks in a season. (There is an exception among linebackers; the late Gary Tinsley had four sacks last year.) Perry has been tabbed as a pass rushing specialist, now he will need to deliver. At 241 pounds, he’s going to be undersized in run coverage, giving up some 60 pounds to most Big Ten offensive linemen.

Much is being expected of defensive tackles Ra’Shede Hageman and junior college transfer Roland Johnson, but there’s little room for ineptitude among the group. Run defense will be an issue for the Gophers in 2012 and if Perry is earning his spot, he will need to prove it through his pass rush, while he gradually learns the art of identifying the run.  

Filed under Minnesota Golden Gophers Minnesota Minnesota Gophers Minnesota Golden Gophers Football Minnesota Gopher football Ben Perry Jerry Kill Gary Patterson Big Ten Football B1G football Gophers

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Gopher football 15 for 2012: No. 14 - Michael Carter

14. Michael Carter | CB | Senior | 5'11” 185 lbs.

G    TK   INT    PDEF
5    10   0      0
(*- See asterisk below for a note about Carter's 2011 stats.)
Photo credit: University of Minnesota Athletic Department

Michael Carter enters his senior year holding a tenuous grasp on the starting cornerback position opposite Troy Stoudermire. What will he do with it? Will Carter finally become the steady, consistent starting cornerback that he showed hints of during his freshman year? Or will he continue to do what has made up his first three years at Minnesota?

Once again, Carter is saying the right things during spring practice, taking responsibility for his previous poor attitude and poor classroom performance.

Carter’s resurgence this spring has been surprising. I fully expected junior college transfers Martez Shabazz and Jeremy Baltazar to surpass him on the depth chart, but after spring practice, here we are with Carter apparently re-dedicating himself and ready to contribute.


Still, Carter said similar things last spring and then nothing changed. In 2011, he played in only five games on a team that was desperate for secondary help. His season stats* include 10 total tackles, zero interceptions and zero passes defended. For comparison, he bested those numbers in one game as a sophomore, when he made 11 tackles, forced a fumble and picked off a pass against Northwestern. He appeared in 12 games as a freshman, which is equal to the aggregate total from his sophomore and junior years.

* - Worth noting: The Gophers’ official site has Carter registering 10 tackles in five games, although cfbstats.com and ESPN.com don’t have Carter listed as playing in the Illinois game. Either way, the point is clear: He didn’t play much in his junior year.

Carter came to Minnesota as a four-star recruit, allegedly turning down scholarship offers from Miami and Florida, the ninth and third-ranked recruiting classes in 2009, according to Rivals. He unseated a popular senior as a true freshman and appeared in 12 games. Maybe it was a case of too much, too soon, but Carter started having problems in the classroom and suffered a nagging toe injury, ending 2010 on an academics-related suspension.

At a risk of repeating columns and turning into Rick Reilly, the problem with Carter is not talent. It’s that during his first three years, he didn’t apply himself. You can teach a person anything, complex fields like rocket science, brain surgery and how to play the “field” cornerback position, but you can’t teach someone to care about rocket science, brain surgery or the nuances of the field cornerback position. If Carter is successful, part of the credit will go to defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys for keeping him out of man coverage, but mainly, Carter’s on-field success will come once he decides to be successful and apply the work that goes into it. He will be successful because Michael Carter decided to care about rocket science, brain surgery and playing football in the Big Ten conference.

If Carter isn’t able to deliver on his potential, the Gophers actually have relative depth at cornerback this year. I write actually because I don’t remember the last time you could say that. Junior college transfers Baltazar, Shabazz and Brien Boddy all seem capable and will be able to contribute immediately. Boddy could redshirt being that he is a sophomore; Baltazar and Shabazz are juniors. That trio puts pressure on Carter to deliver, but it also gives the Gophers a large safety net in case he regresses to the production of his last two years.

Filed under 15 for 2012 Gophers Jeremy Baltazar Martez Shabazz Michael Carter Minnesota Minnesota Golden Gophers Minnesota Golden Gophers Football Minnesota Gophers Minnesota Gophers football cfb college football Big Ten Football B1G football

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Call him ‘Country,’ but let’s see what Jerry Kill has next in store

(Photo credit: Marlin Levison / Star Tribune) The following column was originally posted on Fringe Bowl Team blog. You read it in entirety there, or below by clicking “Read More.” 

Reader Patrick sends in the following question: “Can we all agree Jerry Kill’s first season has been complete flop?

Alright, a reader didn’t e-mail that. It came from Patrick Reusse on Twitter* after I asked him about his running criticism of Jerry Kill, particularly that the new coach was small time and, of all things, that he has a country drawl.

* - Well, maybe he’s a reader, but I doubt it. I remain grounded that few people care to read Gopher football insight spliced with quotes from “Apocolypse Now.” Anyway, I’ve worked in newspapers for a little bit more than five years. It’s not that long of a period, but long enough where I’ve had the great opportunity to ask tough questions to some incredibly brilliant people – governors, U.S. Senators, congresswomen who’ve become presidential contenders, famous athletes, even Desmond Tutu. After all of those people, I don’t think my dad has ever been as surprised as when on Thursday I said, “Reusse replied to me on Twitter a couple of times.”

My dad’s reply, “Why is he on there responding to people like you?”

Yes, to answer your next question: my dad is a regular viewer of “The Sports Show.”

Reusse is a bit of a lightning rod among some Gopher fans, who complain that he takes his criticism too far. Does he sometimes? Depends who you ask. But to say he doesn’t know what he is talking about or that he isn’t an encyclopedia of Gopher football would be criminal. In his defense, honestly, how else do you describe a team that was outscored 103-3 in the first halves of its first three conference games? I don’t always agree with his takes — particularly his idea to create a rivalry with Indiana, especially after he remarked that fans have too low of expectations in another column — but I’ve yet to read anything that is particularly unfair in his Star Tribune or ESPN1500 columns. Above all, I don’t think he’s a Skip Bayless lightning rod just shouting for the sake of hurting people’s ears. When he’s on, he’s the best sports columnist in the Twin Cities and it’s not even close. 

So while his question was rhetorical, let’s delve into it. Has Kill’s first season been a complete flop?*

* - Yes, I’m going to take a question from a 140-character medium and write a couple thousand words in response. I love the Internet.

* * * *

A day after the Minnesota Golden Gophers lost to Purdue, University of Minnesota Athletic Director and perennial student section patsy Joel Maturi gave Tim Brewster his walking papers, confirming a leaked report that the coach would be fired if the Gophers lost.

Speaking before assembled reporters on Oct. 17, 2010, Maturi tried to assure the scribes that he would find a big-time coach to lead the program back into respectability. He remarked that the new coach “wouldn’t be following Vince Lombardi” and said he had already asked Tony Dungy to take over the program. (The Super Bowl winning-coach and obvious favorite of Gopher fans who still believe in the Easter Bunny declined instantly.)

“The fact of the matter is President Bruininks knows, Joel Maturi knows, others know that football is the engine to every athletic program,” Maturi told the Associated Press. Yes, he even spoke in third-person. “I’ve asked Tubby Smith if he wanted to coach football, but he’s declined. … But we’re out here to find a Tubby Smith. We’re out here to find somebody that people can recognize, people have confidence in, and people are going to bring instant credibility and notoriety to the football program.”

There it was. A Tubby Smith-type hire. The man three and a half years removed from hiring a former tight ends coach with no major head coaching experience now touted his ability to find, and hire, a big name college football coach.

* - Seriously – look at the picture attached to this article. That is the definition of the Joel Maturi face. Eli Manning looks at that, shrugs and says, “Man, he doesn’t seem to confident, huh?”

The Internet went nuts with rumors, some credible, some as laughable as Dungy. Many fans wanted Mike Leach, who even mentioned the job a few times. Still, as much as I like Leach, most were able to realize that he wasn’t a realistic choice for several reasons. Other names floated included Al Golden, Brady Hoke and Randy Edsall, along with outside shots like Phil Fullmer and Troy Calhoun. Mark Richt hadn’t even lost his job yet and fans were thinking the not-fired Georgia coach would come north. While those names spun around Twitter and Gopher Hole, I felt like Houston’s Kevin Sumlin should have been offered the job seconds after showing Brewster the door.

If those names weren’t already driving people to delusions of grandeur, shortly before the official announcement of a new hire was made some people started floating the idea that the Gophers would try to lure Boise State’s Chris Peterson to Dinkytown. I was one of the idiots hoping for that full-court heave to swish through the net, but even that seemed a bit far fetched.

Did Maturi set up his new coach to fail? Well, maybe. In respect of the strategy to use conservative expectations and then over-deliver, Maturi himself failed. Who was his football version of Tubby Smith? Jerry Kill.

I have to come clean, I was completely let down at first. When Kill’s name was announced. I was hoping for Sumlin and had worked myself into outside delusions of Peterson and Dan Mullen. My gut-shot negativity was met by many of the other Gopher fans. (All 10 of us.) But in two Tweets’ time, I conceded that Kill had put together some solid programs. I read more about him and thought he could be the guy to lead this program back toward fringe bowl respectability, at the least. Most of the other Gopher fans jumped on, too.

Kill helped things though at his first press conference by saying the right things and keeping expectations low – he didn’t, for example create a term like “Gopher Nation.” But really, what other choice did we have?

The Gophers had a new coach and the fans a new set of expectations. Any college football expert with a computer or a press pass was labeling the Gophers last in the Big Ten, with no more than four wins for Kill’s first year. Hoping that Brewster’s final year was the bottoming out, I figured the Gophers would improve from 2010. Practices seemed to be going well and MarQueis Gray was developing well with the new offense.

Then the USC game happened.

A game that Vegas oddsmakers tabbed to be separated by 20 points came down to the final minute, with the Gophers roughly 40 yards away from a chip-shot field goal and a huge upset. Yahoo’s Pat Forde (then with ESPN) had picked the Gophers to upset and if you remember, Gophers kicker Chris Hawthorne missed a 42-yard field goal earlier in the game. (He also had a 51-yard attempt blocked, but in all honestly, that block probably saved everyone from watching a ball fall short of the endzone.)

Suddenly, everyone was on the Kill bandwagon.

This is the danger with the close loss, the so-called moral victory. It makes people think that a team is better than it is. It gets people like Charlie Weis 10-year contract extensions. It allows people to have revisionist history, even when they are still caught in the moment.

The only important things that Gopher fans should have taken from the USC game was that USC was able to pass the ball at will to Robert Woods and that the defense couldn’t pressure Matt Barkley. Instead, we all looked at the schedule, penciled in three wins – New Mexico State, Miami (OH) and North Dakota State – and looked to the conference schedule optimistically.

The expectations now were out of whack. At the very best case, 2010’s goal was six victories and a lower-tier bowl. The realistic expectations were beating New Mexico State, Miami (OH), the Bison and then some combination of Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern and Illinois.

Of course, the optimism was short-lived. That USC near-win led everyone into the first train wreck of the year, the New Mexico State loss, which went down again to the final minutes as Kill writhed on the sidelines in a seizure. The awful loss immediately went to the back of people’s minds, as most just wondered if Kill would be healthy.

Two weeks later, the Gophers would be outplayed and outmuscled by North Dakota State. Suddenly, this team was in zero-win territory. But it got worse, 58 points worse. I’m not going to rehash the losses in excruciating detail – the Michigan running diary and the Gophpocalypse Now column are available for that – you already know that the year got ugly, fast. The team committed stupid penalties – five on special teams against Michigan alone. It seemed as if the Gophers were the best team in the nation at moving before the snap.

This year had low points that made you seriously question spending time watching the Gophers on Saturdays. But just as the the Gophers were demolished by the Wolverines, embarrassed by the Boilermakers and dominated by the Cornhuskers, something happened.

Certain players started to get it. MarQueis Gray started to pick up the offense. Receivers started to make catches. Marcus Jones showed why Kill raved about him during spring practice. Offensive linemen – with injuries forcing a sort of a musical chairs playing rotation – stopped rolling over at the line of scrimmage. The Gophers started playing football successfully.

They beat Iowa in a surprise win. The following week, the Gophers punched Michigan State in the mouth and had the ball on the Spartans’ 45-yard-line before an interception left the Gophers a touchdown short against a team that will play for the Big Ten Conference title this Saturday. That growth and optimism was tempered by the next two weeks, losses to a gilt-edged Wisconsin team and a Northwestern squad that the Gophers outplayed.

The season ended on a strong win Saturday, as Kill’s team throughly outplayed a lifeless Fighting Illini squad that played as though they had somewhere else to be. (Saving their coach’s job was apparently not that appointment; Illini coach Ron Zook was fired today.)

* * * *

Was Kill’s year a complete flop? No. They held on to Floyd, which at least keeps one trophy in the case at the Gibson-Nagurski complex.

Although the start of the season should have been sponsored by both Waste Management and the Bic Lighter Company, the Gophers improved by the end of the season and were able to beat two teams they shouldn’t have. That was the biggest goal this year, for the team to show marked improvement since the beginning of the year.

Now, the critics will say that Kill’s record this year is the same as Brewster’s last year. I would argue that the two teams are different for various reasons, you know, especially players. I would also argue that fixing a four-in-a-half-year mistake isn’t going to happen overnight (some of these players have been through five different offenses).

Reusse has said that “Country Jer” isn’t the right guy for the job, that he wanted Sumlin instead. Hell, I agreed at the time of Kill’s hire — I would have loved it the Gophers had hired Sumlin. But what would have Sumlin done differently? Would he have made a big difference? What game can you point to that the Gophers lost because of coaching? You can’t. The reality is that Tim Brewster left a team without much depth, especially at offensive line and defensive back. You can’t coach what you literally don’t have.

We don’t know what we have yet with Kill (Reusse also said as much here). We won’t know likely until next year gets underway. Chasing the quick-fix dream led us to Brewster. Patience can be a dangerous thing to ask for when rebuilding a mistake-filled program, but that’s exactly what this program needs going into next year. Kill’s squad improved as the year went on and the team has solid players coming off of redshirt and coming into the program as freshmen.

Country or not, Kill has built two programs and established another. If someone is “country” because they aren’t grinning with blinding white teeth or parading around with a square of Rose Bowl turf while ranting about the temperature of chili, grab me a strand of hay and a pair of overalls. This year was going to be ugly regardless of the coach, but the Gophers made improvements as the year continued under Kill.

If we’re here next year talking about the Gophers finishing 3-9 again, then let’s talk about complete flops.


Elliot Mann has worked for several newspapers, including the Wichita Eagle in Kansas and the Rochester Post-Bulletin and Stillwater Gazette, both in Minnesota. He joined Fringe Bowl Team Blog as a columnist in 2011 and is a Minnesota native. Read his personal blog here, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliotmann or send him an e-mail here.

Filed under Minnesota Golden Gophers Minnesota Golden Gophers Football Minnesota Gophers Jerry Kill Big Ten Football B1G Football 2011 Minnesota Gophers Football Patrick Reusse