Under the direction of Jerry Kill, there no question that the Minnesota Golden Gophers have been salvaged from the bottom of the Big Ten and are climbing the steep staircase to the executive floor of the conference.
In his first season with the Gophers, Kill finished 3-9 with a league record of 2-6 and a last-place finish in the Legends Division of the Big Ten. In the following three seasons, Minnesota compiled a record of 22-17 and was a legitimate threat to reach the Big Ten championship game this past season.
Throughout his four-year stint with the Gophers, Kill has established a traditional Big Ten style of play that focuses on a strong running attack and a solid defensive presence. And, for a program that had muddled through a decade of mediocre football, a boost in competitive nature was a nice step forward.
Now, after back-to-back 8-5 seasons, the question looming over Kill is whether or not he can lead the program to the next level beginning in 2015.
Several challenges face Minnesota heading into next season, primarily on the offensive side of the football. With David Cobb out, who rushed for more than 2,900 yards and 20 touchdowns in his final two seasons with the Gophers, and athletic tight end Maxx Williams headed for the NFL draft, Kill is left with few proven options.
There’s little question that replacing its primary back will be Minnesota’s greatest challenge in 2015.
Running back is one of the more popular positions on the roster for the Golden Gophers heading into next year. The only players with returning experience are Rodrick Williams Jr. and Berkley Edwards who combined for only 254 yards and five touchdowns a season ago. They will be competing for the top spot against Rodney Smith, who redshirted his freshman season, and highly-touted recruit Jeff Jones who was named Minnesota’s Mr. Football last year.
At the moment, due to none of the aforementioned players being proven starters, the expectation is running back by committee for the Gophers to replicate their ground attack from last year.
In addition to finding an answer to the running back conundrum, quarterback Mitch Leidner will also have his hands full trying to find quality receivers as the Gophers push for the Big Ten West crown.
With Maxx Williams gone, Minnesota doesn’t have a single pass-catcher who was on the receiving end of more than 18 passes in 2014. Of the players returning, K.J. Maye had the most receptions last year, hauling in 16 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown.
Leidner had enough trouble throwing the football last season, completing just 51 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. With the possibility of trouble looming in the Gophers’ backfield, Leidner may be asked to sling the ball across the field more frequently.
Without some familiar, productive faces, that could be a potential roadblock for Kill and company.
Defensively, the Gophers should be very competitive and potentially better than their 34th national rank a year ago. With Eric Murray, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Damarius Travis returning in the secondary, Minnesota is hoping to sport one of the best pass-defenses in the country.
There is some talent returning on the defensive line as well with Theiren Cockran and Steven Richardson, as well as Scott Ekpe who will return from an injury suffered early last season.
In that aspect, the Gophers should be able to compete with anyone.
As we saw last year with Penn State though, defense alone doesn’t win games.
Spring ball will be a proving ground for Kill, who will look to win his first division title and first bowl game in 2015. Beginning to put some of the pieces together offensively and developing receivers and running backs prior to summer training would be a huge step in helping Minnesota reach its goals.
Preparing Leidner for the opportunity for a more pass-heavy game plan would be beneficial as well.
Kill has a huge test ahead of him but also a great opportunity. He’s led the Gophers from being a cellar-dweller back to conference relevancy.
The development of an offense in the offseason, or lack thereof, could be the difference between reaching the upper echelon of the Big Ten or stumbling down a few steps in the wrong direction.