B1G 2014: Minnesota Gophers Football Cocktail Party Preview

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Will the Gophers break through to the next level in 2014? Or this is a season where they could be as good (or better) than the year before while having a worse record?

Hey, so it's almost July and sinus infections are ruling my house. Hooray for summer colds. Oh, you came here to read about Minnesota, not to hear my complaining? Well...ok. We can try that I guess.

About Last Season

The Good News

Eight wins, five losses. That was a pleasant surprise. Minnesota leaving the non-con 4-0 was expected. The four straight Big Ten wins the Gophers rolled off (for the first time since 1973) were not. Toss in the program's first win over Nebraska since 1960, a dominating "trophy" win over Penn State, the first 1000 yard rusher since 2006, Indiana pulling a Minnesota while I was in Bloomington and 2013 turned out to be a nice one in Minnesota.

The Bad News

No Pig, no Jug, no Axe. Kill had another seizure, only this time it was followed by a tidal wave of DERP from local and national media figures that made me rather cranky. A bowl loss to Syracuse to end the season on a 3 game skid. More quarterback instability leading to the Gophers being the most one dimensional offensive team this side of Navy (only without the crazy scheme no one preps for enough).

What To Watch For In 2014

Offense

Post-23234-fireman-minion-gif-rpjb_medium

via www.allthingskelly.com

I'd like to introduce you all to the #QBGaze minion. He's a mascot of sorts over at The Daily Gopher. I call upon him whenever a certain Twin Cities beat writer finds a way to talk about a QB controversy (often at a time when there isn't one). Thanks to the departure of Phillip Nelson, #QBGaze minion will not have to worry about being unemployed anytime soon. Then again, I suppose it's a good thing Phil Nelson transferred because now his whole mess is Rutgers' problem. It also means that Minnesota will be into starting QB #4 of Kill's short tenure at Minnesota, hence the minion's continued workload. It also means that Gopher fans go into another season unsure about just what we're going to get from the guy lining up behind center (currently RS Sophmore Mitch Leidner).

It's not like Mitch is without experience. He had 4 starts last year (2 non-con, 2 B1G) and he played a bunch during the bowl game. But none of those performances lead any Gopher fans to view him as the next Peyton Manning. He's a big guy and a tough runner to take down (thus our affectionate nicknaming of him as Moose). But his passing game needs work and he needs to reduce the number of times he takes sacks (seriously, it's like he threatened with beatings for throwing the ball away). If he can take advantage of the all the players most teams will stack in the box against Minnesota he could have a big year. But in all honesty, I'd settle for a completion % north of 60%, no fumbles, and low INT's. In other words, the sort of QB that Badger fans like to saint every 3 years simply for being competent.

A crowded backfield will hopefully reduce the number of times that Moose totes the rock. The Gophers return leading rusher David Cobb (1202 yards, 7 TD's), experienced senior Donnell Kirkwod, and our football toting bowling ball Rodrick Williams, Jr. Minnesota fans are also excited to see what RS frosh Berkley Edwards can do as a speedy change of pace back. The wild card is highly rated recruit Jeff Jones. No one is exactly sure what to expect from him as a true freshman, but hopes are high that he'll be able to make an impact if called upon.

Youth is the name of the game for the Minnesota receivers, as 3 of the top 4 returning pass catchers are sophomores. Maxx Williams was fan favorite as a freshman. He was tied for the team lead in catches with 25 and yards with 417. Drew Wolitarsky is the WR many fans are hoping will break out this year. The most explosive receiver is probably converted QB Donovahn Jones. He's still raw with his route running, but the athleticism he displayed is exciting. Rounding out the top four is senior Issac Fruechte, a MN local who we'd all love to see leave on a big year. My sleeper is RS frosh TE Nate Wozniak. He's tall like me (6'10") so obviously he's going to score ALL OF THE TOUCHDOWNS. Why? Because tall that's why.

The offensive line is experienced, with sophomore Ben Lauer being the only underclassman that I expect the Gophers to heavily rely on (Jobu willing - no injury issues please!). I expect that they'll execute OC Matt Limegrover's run heavy play calling effectively and hopefully Mitch has learned to throw the ball away so that their sack stats don't end up looking terrible.

Defense

I'd like to take a moment to mourn the passing (er, graduation) of Ra'Shede Hageman. Shede, your ability to eat running backs and quarterbacks whole was joyous to witness and you will be missed. Your departure leaves a long shadow, one that senior Cameron Botticelli and junior Scott Epke may struggle to fill. Overall depth along the line isn't terrible. The Gophers return 6 starters from a unit that was solid overall. However, the graduation of Shede and Roland Johnson means the DT position is the weakest. The guy to watch is DE Theiren Cockran. He led the team with 7.5 sacks and was essentially Minnesota's only true pass rushing threat last year.

At linebacker, the Gophers lose two key contributors in Aaron Hill and James Manuel. The Gophers will be without the services of JUCO Cody Poock, who was lost to an ACL tear in the spring. That leaves the team a little short once you get past the projected starters of Damien Wilson, De'Vondre Campbell, and Jephte Matilus. Given how DC Tracy Claeys likes to sub his LB's, some fresh faces will definitely see action this year.

The secondary is the unit I'm least worried about. While the unit does lose Brock Vereen (drafted by Chicago in the 4th round) and a busy backup in Martezz Shabazz, they also return a solid core. The unit will be led by junior Eric Murray, who the coaches continue to talk about as the most NFL-likely player on the current defense. He showed his athleticism and ball hawking skills throughout the season as he lead the team with 10 PBU's. Briean Boddy-Calhoun looked poised to have a good year on the other side prior to tearing an ACL vs. UNLV in the season opener and he'll be relied upon as a senior. Another senior Gopher fans hope will have a big year is Derrick Wells. After a strong sophomore campaign he didn't come on as strong as a junior. Cedric Thompson (who is a great story in his own right off the field) and Antonio Johnson will anchor the safety spots.

All in all, the defense will need to maintain last year's form if the Gophers want to think about replicating 8 wins. The passing game may have the most room for improvement (and thus the higher upside to helping the team), but last year doesn't happen without the defense coming up big at key times. Kill will be relying on them to do the same this season.

Special Teams

ALL OF THE PUNTING GIFS!

Mortell_second_punt_full_medium

via cdn2.sbnation.com

Mortell_first_punt_full_medium

via cdn2.sbnation.com

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via cdn1.vox-cdn.com

Peter Mortell returns as the fist-pumping punter of doom. Hopefully he receives more attention this season now that Cody Webster isn't around to provide all of Purdue's offense, because he deserves it. There is a reason I tried to rig the balloting here at OTE last fall (er, that is...um...LOOK OVER THERE BRET BEILEMA IS SHOTGUNNING NATTY LITES WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY SHITTING HIMSELF YOU SHOULD LAUGH AT HIM).

The return game should be fine, with speedy Marcus Jones and solid Antonio Johnson leading the way. That said, I do hope Marcus has improved his PR decision making a touch or B1G fans will likely be treated to at least one WTF moment this year.

Kickers? I dunno. Someone will do it. Seriously, it's the kickers and I haven't paid attention that much and the results from the spring were muddled. I'm going to pick LB sized Ryan Santoso to lead the way.

Schedule

Remember the part where I said this team could be better than last year and end up with a worse record? Well, the schedule is why. The non-con gets an upgrade with a road trip to TCU. Otherwise? Meh. Minnesota opens with B1G season with another trip to the Big House. They replace Indiana with Purdue (is it ok to say that I'm glad we won't play Indiana? Because I am) and Penn State with Illinois (a small win, but the game is in the wasteland of central Illinois). But those last 4 games...oh those last four games.

Iowa

Ohio State

@ Nebraska

@ Wisconsin

Yea...Minnesota didn't get the Charmin soft new B1G schedule that others (cough Wisconsin cough) did now that Rutgers and Maryland will be joining the adults at the big table. That last four is going to determine how this season looks. The Gophers could come into the Iowa game sitting at 7-1 and leave the season 7-5. Realistically, the best I can see out of that stretch is 2-2, and that's if I squint really hard through my maroon colored glasses.

If You're Talking To A Minnesota Fan...

Do Mention: The Golden-I, Maxxxxxxxxx Williams, Coach Kill's dancing.

Don't Mention: Kill's seizures, especially if you want to try and explain why he should retire rather than put his life on the line (pro tip: it's not). It's a dead horse topic. Oh, and anything Wisconsin unless it's about how much you also dislike them.

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