Friday, November 1, 2013

Minnesota Gophers Sport New Football Team...From One Month Ago

The University of Minnesota hired Jerry Kill to be its football coach in December 2010, and immediately the aura around its football team changed.  Academics became important, character became important, and team became more than a word describing the club the football players belonged to.  Minnesota football was renewed, except for one basic feature: in terms of winning ballgames, it still wasn't very good.

Over two seasons and three offseasons our Gophers changed.  Kill brought in players who weren't especially coveted by BCS level programs and collectively were regarded as the worst sets of recruits in the Big Ten.  To the keen observer, though, these kids as a whole were much better football players than advertised, and the level of smarts, character, and want-to was the highest it's been in many decades.  The team, including former coach Tim Brewster's leftovers, started attending class, became structured in both academics and football activities, and began the process of becoming winners.  The secret bane of all non-powerhouse programs, attrition, virtually disappeared.

We at Twinstalker fell in love.  It wasn't perfect.  There were pink flags that we deep down knew might be an issue, but we were in love.  Certainly the strategy and playcalling of OC Matt Limegrover would improve with better teams.  Certainly the defensive sets would be more appropriate to the opponent.  Certainly Jerry Kill's in-game decision-making would be more sound.  All we really needed was good players, and the were developing.  They were coming.

Yes, we had monitored the program's development closely and determined that 2013 would be the first legitimate winning team under Kill.  This would be the year that our Minnesota Gophers would be a better football team than half of the BCS programs, the year the team would finish in the middle of the Big Ten.  And 2013 would be just the start.  By 2014 the play of the lines would improve, linebackers would be found, and the skill positions would finally be manned with a few playmakers.  Sure, the schedule would also strengthen considerably in 2014 and beyond, but for a team on the rise the challenges brought by the likes of Ohio State should be accepted with eagerness rather than consternation.

So when the season opening kickoff sailed through the air on that hot, late summer Thursday night, we were simply giddy to watch our beloved Maroon and Gold dissect WAC-level opponents through the nonconference season, followed by the Gophers announcing to the Big Ten there was a new team to deal with in 2013.

And then the Gophers ran their first play.  Their first series.  Their first defensive series.  And it was all ugly.  Through four games, most of them blowout scores in the Gophers' favor, the team showed itself to be anything but ready for Big Ten caliber opponents.  The offense was simple and predictable, the line was barely mediocre and getting outplayed in some games, and the defense had issues all over the field, including the secondary, an area thought to be a strength.  Those pink flags we hoped would disappear didn't.  We were distraught.

At that point, prior to the Big Ten opener, we took a few moments to post a comment on the message board expressing how "profoundly disappointed" we were with the Gophers nonconference season.  We critiqued the coaching, and we critiqued the play position by position, and it was a pretty negative piece if you were both blind and hopeful, which it always seems a majority of Gopher fans are.  The replies were littered with you think you're so smart (maybe), you've never played or coached (wrong), and we devote a blog to cutting down a team we're supposedly fans of (wrong).  We received no further apologetic replies, of course, when it turned out everything we said about our Gophers turned out to be spot on versus a very mediocre Iowa team.  The Gophers gave us confirmation of their inadequacy the next week at Michigan.  As it existed at that time, ours was a pretty bad football team.

We naturally wanted to say we "told you so" but those people are beyond hope.  We decided to either drop it or bring it up again if the Gophers turned things around.  Our main contention with the 4-0 Gophers was that offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was primarily responsible for the poor and ugly play.  While we didn't expect him to change, it was a hope we held.  For sure there were other issues, but running a varied offensive attack was at the heart of the solution.  Whether or not Limegrover had it in him was unknown.

We promised Monday that on Tuesday we'd share the thesis we'd posted before Iowa, and then later this week we'd analyze how each issue had evolved or devolved.  Unfortunately, we found the post was no longer available, and we didn't really see the urgency in its recovery.  While it won't be word for word, the issues we brought up are still pretty fresh in our collective mind.

Overall Offensive
The post, as stated, received its shared of stupid replies, as expected, but not nearly as many as similar posts in the past.  Most of the board members there are not morons, those who are are just a bit louder.  Don't just disagree, make sure you cut down the poster sharing his opinion.  In this case, though, there were numerous comments that agreed with the most simple premise: Limegrover was proving to suck at his job.  He was running a basic ten play read-option offense out of the shotgun or pistol set.  The only play that worked consistently was the quarterback keeper.  Anyone who's watch Big Ten football knew that that particlar play in this small offense would not work in the Big Ten, but it would get the QB injured eventually.  That was especially problematic, because the Gophers had one well-rounded quarterback who was going to lead the program turnaround (assuming a more varied offense), and after that there appeared a drop-off.

Out of the I-formation Limegrover was running the power lead, and the offensive line was pushing no one back.  We noticed Limegrover was staying in the middle and to the left, running over his one good lineman, left guard Zac Epping, but that strategy, too, was working only against the poorest of competition.  The passing game was simple, and the array of routes were not allowing the receivers to separate.  We looked at the team's strongest position, tight end, and wondered why Limegrover didn't build a module of plays around their quality junior Drew Goodger or their very impressive redshirt freshman Maxx Williams.

So the offense wasn't working, and it was putting the starting QB, the biggest key to a Minnesota Gopher turnaround, at risk.  Philip Nelson had indeed injured himself in the third game, though the hamstring strain he sustained may have had little to do with the offense.  Mitch Leidner had started the game against San Jose State, and he had performed unevenly.  His throwing left much to be desired, but SJSU couldn't stop the QB keeper, so Leidner set a quirky sort of record for rushing touchdowns.  Since nothing about the play appeared to extrapolate well to the Big Ten, we felt no real optimism from the display.

So what happened when the Big Ten season arrived?  Well, as predicted, the offense just didn't work even at home against the lowliest of Big Ten opponents, the Iowa Hawkeyes.  Nelson made the surprise start, and he looked like a quarterback who was both rusty and had no options.  We're sure many delusional Gopher fan were surprised the team couldn't run the ball against Iowa, when it had done so well against New Mexico St.  There was no offense at all and no hope for the Gopher to win a home game against one of the bottom teams in the conference.  All was seemingly lost, except for one thing.  Limegrover finally woke up.

The offensive coordinator must have been too close to the situation to understand the lopsided wins were in spite of his offensive strategy, not in accordance with it.  That message got through in Big Ten week 2, and the Gophers expanded their playbook for the Michigan game.  It was for this game that another big decision was made: Leidner would make the start over a healthy Nelson.  This decision threw the Twinstalker crew into a tizzy.  Really?  The one hope you have for turning this program around is going to sit on the bench in favor of a freshman who is simply not as talented?  We saw the future, and it was a Philip Nelson transfer.

The Gophers again looked bad against Michigan, and Leidner didn't play a great game, but somehow some hope came out of it all.  Leidner proved to be capable as hopefully a backup, and Limegrover was mixing things up.  Two games later Limegrover is being hailed as an innovative schemer for his game plan against Nebraska, and it looks like he's starting to understand that there exists a difference between Nelson and Leidner.  We've often wondered whether all the preseason hype afforded a mediocre Leidner was more of a message to Nelson, and now we  ask whether a now better-than-mediocre Leidner starting and playing a couple of series each game isn't serving the same purpose.  We'd like to believe there is a plan and that Limegrover isn't simply obtuse to the difference in their talents.

There is no doubt that the Gophers hit Northwestern at precisely the right time and hit Nebraska at a good time, too, but the change in offensive philosophy doesn't need to get the full credit for the wins.  Its importance lies in the future.  Minnesota is unlikely to win games with a one-dimensional offense, and Limegrover seems to understand that now.

We've pretty much laid out our opinions on Nelson and Leidner. One comment we made in the GI post was that we no longer cared if true freshman Chris Streveler lost his redshirt.  If Limegrover was going to use his QBs as he was in nonconference, it hardly mattered whether we had three or four more years of Streveler.  We will just recruit one athletic QB every year; it doesn't take a lot of smarts or experience to run the offense Limegrover was throwing out there.

As for Nelson, it's difficult to distinguish his play from the new offense.  He continues to throw a nice ball, and he is a running threat.  We assume he is the clear-cut #1.  We thought he was doing fine a month ago, and it's proven to be the case.  Leidner at Michigan gave us confidence that he can be a quality backup, something that was never clear, despite the coaches' hype.

Offensive Line
Our GI post stated that the GI faithful were generally way too optimistic about this group.  The recruits weren't highly touted, and Limegrover had shown nothing really in improving them.  We've always stated that the upside of this group is average Big Ten quality, and they weren't close to that in the nonconference season.  Making it extra difficult was the predictable offense being run.

This all proved out in the Iowa and Michigan games, as the offensive line was beaten quite badly in both.  The unit played better at Michigan and still better at Northwestern and versus Nebraska.  The last two games featured opponents with less than top DLs, but we think most Gopher improvements correlate positively with the opening up of the offense, and this is especially true for the offensive line.

We also pointed out two offensive tackle issues.  The first is that right tackle Josh Campion hadn't played well.  Neither had right guard Caleb Bak, but why pick on Campion?  We picked on Campion because so many people confuse general praise with thinking a player is playing well.  Campion is the Ra'Shede Hageman of 2013.  The coaches hype him because they see potential in him.  They're trying to give him confidence, because, as is our belief from watching him specifically on each play, he's just not doing as good a job as you would expect.  At the line he's not much more than a body, maybe in the way but never driving his opponent off the ball or away from the QB.  Since most plays are not run in his hole, his job usually is to get to the second level on a linebacker, and it's here where he almost never makes relevant contact with the defense.  We state this in present tense, because it hasn't changed.

As poorly as we believe Campion had played when we wrote the post, the worst spot on the offensive line was at left tackle.  We remarked that it bodes very badly for the future if one of the redshirt freshmen doesn't take over this season at left tackle.  We didn't have to wait that long, because RS freshman Ben Lauer either started or got the bulk of the playing time against Iowa and has continued to play an important role.  We haven't focused on him too much, but he looks like an inexperienced freshman with some potential.  Another Minnesota kid not recruited by any big schools.

Running Back
Our opinion of the running back situation at Minnesota is that the quality of back recruited here since the Mason days is overall pretty low.  Donnell Kirkwood had other opportunities, but he wasn't a top recruit and the rest of the backs had few BCS options, even Berkley Edwards whose lone commit-able BCS option ended up being Minnesota.  Still, we thought Kirkwood was a very good back and had played very well in limited time.  The other backs, especially Roderick Williams, had done good work.

What has changed?  Well, with his blocking and hard running, we never thought we'd see Kirkwood beaten out when healthy, and it appears that is just what's happened.  Former disappointment David Cobb has come on strong.  His ability to block isn't at Kirkwood's level, but he actually runs better.  One wonders if Kirkwood hard running style hasn't finally rubbed off on Cobb, who is also a powerful runner.  The difference, though, is Cobb's ability to change direction, to find the crease that wasn't necessarily supposed to be there.  His vision has been a large part of what's been lacking in Gopher RBs for some time, and we're very impressed.  He is another reason the line appears to have improved.

Receiver and Tight End
We made three points about the wide receivers: first, the offense was completing discounting the receivers; second, it appeared none of them could get separation, which was likely related to the offense; third, that none of the Gopher wide-outs didn't seem hungry for the ball.  We were personally disappointed that Derrick Engel hadn't distinguished himself against inferior competition.  KJ Maye seemed the only receiver playing well

Limegrover's metamorphosis has made a huge difference for this group.  What we're not sure we completely understand is the disappearance of Maye and the very limited play of Jamel Harbison.  We're never sure of much, but we were pretty confident that Harbison would end up being the best receiver of the group of wide-outs.  We're disappointed to not see him.

Engel, on the other hand, has become this year's AJ Barker, hopefully without the attitude.  He's found separation, and he's going for the ball.  It's amazing the transformation a player can make when the coach finally says "you're important."

We can't stop salivating at what we believe is coming from current true freshman Donovahn Jones.  The kid has an athletic body and speed that screams NFL receiver.  We haven't seen the hands, yet, but we'll guess the positive.

The other positive part of the passing game that has changed, starting with Michigan, is that it is now targeting our best threat, the tight ends.  Williams is a beast, and Googer is very solid.  Sophomore Lincoln Plsec, also solid as a blocker especially, should be a redshirt freshman DT, but what do we know?

General Defense
The concerns here about defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys surrounded his choosing defensive sets that depended on very, very good defensive tackles, and we didn't have any, except for Roland Johnson, who was only on the field half the time.  It also depended on the filling of the LBs against the run, as, very familiarly, the linebackers were usually out of position.  The importance of great DT and LB play is because the DEs almost exclusively go wide and leave gaping holes.  The scheme wasn't working, the WAC-level teams were abusing the defense, and Iowa had to be licking its chops.  Our knowledge of defensive schemes is extremely limited, but we felt we could tell that much.

Sure enough, Iowa, for the second year in a row took advantage of this defense and the lack of playmakers. Even Johnson was buried under the size of the Hawkeye linemen.  Claeys is being outcoached by his Iowa counterpart, though Iowa isn't doing anything different, so Claeys is being outcoached really by the status quo.  Ouch.

While the Michigan game got ugly, it wasn't clear that Michigan was that much better, and numerous factors played into the blowout.  It's hard to pin it all on the defensive strategy.  At Northwestern Claeys got lucky with the Wildcats' top two playmakers being out.  Northwestern became very average, and once the Gophers caught on to the fact that they could stop Northwestern, they did.  While the Gopher defense played well at times and adjusted well against Nebraska, we kept crossing our fingers that the Cornhuskers didn't just keep getting the ball to their very impressive RB Ameer Abdullah.  Nebraska just didn't seem to make good decisions on offense, and their execution was often poor.

We brought up something we really hadn't seen around the parts, certainly under Glen Mason and of course under Brewster.  The Gophers defense seems to have the ability to adjust to what is working against them.  It's not perfect, but it's noticeable, and it's progress.

Defensive Line
We are accused of having something against DT Ra'Shede Hageman, but in our GI post we gave him some credit.  A year ago he had played mostly horrible against nonconference FBS competition and been hyped and praised in spite of doing so.  We noticed this year that he played better against this similar level of competition.  He was making some tackles he hadn't made the year before, and he was getting his hands in the passing lane, which alone made him formidable.   Unfortunately, he was getting blocked way too easily on way too many plays by a lone lineman.

We thought Roland Johnson had played very well.  He was commanding double teams nearly every down, while Hageman got credit for doing so when it occurred rarely.  We weren't especially impressed with the play of Cameron Botticelli and Scott Ekpe, either.  The defensive ends took themselves out of the play often as part of Claeys' schemes, and none of them seem to stand out in getting to the QB.

Hageman, Johnson, and the rest disappeared against Iowa and Michigan, and we thought Hageman would be the greatest hype the college football world has ever seen, but then he showed up at Northwestern and helped to completely disrupt the Wildcats' offense.  It was truly the first time we saw the kid do this, and we've watched and re-watched every game he'd played.  Against Nebraska Hageman had his best game, save for some penalties.  We never look at the present as much as the future, and the penalties were called on amazing plays by Hageman.  They were unfortunate but took nothing away from what he might be becoming.  How much a wounded Nebraska offensive line had to do with this is a question, but we are pretty certain  Nebraska's backup guard should be better than the starter at Western Illinois.  Hageman is making his senior season count, apparently.

Johnson also had a big game against Nebraska and played extremely well.  If you're wondering which one Roland Johnson is, he's the one on the ground in the backfield who just tripped up the ball carrier and has two offensive linemen lying on him.  His size is going to prevent him from playing at the next level, but he sure is fun to watch.

We weren't terribly impressed with the linebacking after the nonconference season, but we commented that Damien Wilson looked really good when he went the right direction.  Despite not always reading the play right or knowing what to do, Wilson was always around the ball.  I graded him relatively highly in spite of his flaws.  Now I feel bad.  He's clearly amazing and the best player on defense, making up for a number of his cohorts on the line and by his side.  His contribution is easily the number one improvement in the team, followed by Hageman's.

The other linebackers did not have an especially good nonconference season.  We weren't especially impressed by new LB De'Vondre Campbell, and seniors Aaron Hill and James Manuel were opportunistic but didn't seem to always make the standard plays, be in in the right position, fill the right holes.  This remains the case, it seems, but middle linebacker Wilson makes up for a lot of the corps' mistakes.

After four games we were bemoaning the loss of Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter, as well as the basic incapacitation of safety turned corner Derrick Wells.  Sophomore Eric Murray clearly had the ability to play at the Big Ten level, but he wasn't consistent, and often when he stuck with his receiver, he risked a penalty by not knowing where the ball was.  Brock Vereen was clearly very good at safety, but Cedric Thompson, now playing every down, was struggling, as were the jucos taking over for Wells at corner.  We were disappointed in this group.

What has changed over the four Big Ten games?  Well, first Murray is better.  He still doesn't look back for the ball enough, but he's sticking with his man more often.  Vereen has been moved back to cornerback.  It might not be his best position, but he's a true football player and possibly an NFLer.  With the safety depth on the team, it is the right move to have him covering the corner.  The group has improved considerably since the nonconference season.

Special Teams
We didn't say much, but we said the kicking and punting were terrible, and that Marcus Jones needed to be taken off the punt team, because he didn't know what he was doing and was dangerous.  The coverage teams seemed good.

A lot has changed, foremost being Jones taken off punt returns.  The punting isn't all that good still, but it's not an automatic criinge.  What is puzzling is what Chris Hawthorne did to his placekicking over the summer.  We were probably a little harsh on him in our GI post, mostly because he hadn't been perfect, and we were still considering how he'd looked in the past.  Four more games has made us realize he's actually not a bad kicker right now.  Not as consistent as we'd like, perhaps, but his kicks look like real field goals kicks and have a real chance, compared to his less powerful ones in previous years.

Extra stuff
We definitely held a negative view of the Gopher team four weeks ago, and they proved us right.  They weren't ready for the Big Ten season.  But we took space at the end of the GI post to comment that the team was extremely well-disciplined.  Penalties were few, mental mistakes were few.  That has continued into the Big Ten season, and further, it's likely part of the reason the team has been able to bounce back from poor play and a head coach leave of absence is their discipline and focus that Gopher teams of the past can match.

Our favorite team isn't a world beater by any means.  Nor is it assured of winning another game this season.  The schedule is tough, but had nothing changed, we would have predicted an 0-4 finish at this point.  Had nothing changed, this could have been an 0-8 season.  We are now fully back on the Jerry Kill bandwagon, after almost jumping off due to Limegrover.  This weekend's game at Indiana is traditionally very difficult, and Indiana is a powerful offensive team.  But no matter what occurs Saturday and for the rest of the year, as long as a coordinator doesn't lose it again, the team is back to improving and ready to break out in 2014.  But have no doubt.  While the Gophers might be considered a better team in 2013, the true turnaround took place in the last month.