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March 24, 2011

Kill brings new outlook to Minnesota

Tim Brewster arrived at Minnesota in 2007 with big dreams.

"We're going to win; we're going to win," he said upon getting the job. "We're going to win the Big Ten championship ... "

Less than four years later, Brewster left town with a 15-30 mark, two lower-tier bowls and lots of unfilled promises.

To replace him, Minnesota turned to Jerry Kill, the anti-Brewster in a way. While Brewster shouted, Kill speaks softly. He's a cancer survivor who has a low-key, blue-collar approach.

Kill has worked his way up on the back roads of the sport, earning little and learning a lot at outposts such as Saginaw Valley State (1994-98, 38-14), Emporia State (11-11, 1999-2000), Southern Illinois (55-32, 2001-07) and, most recently, Northern Illinois (23-16, 2008-10).

MINNESOTA AT-A-GLANCE
MarQueis Gray must show he can handle the starting quarterback job this spring.
THE BASICS
Coach: Jerry Kill
Last season: 3-9 overall, 2-6 in Big Ten.
Spring dates: March 24-April 23.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (6): RB Duane Bennett, G Chris Bunders, WR MarQueis Gray (moving to quarterback), TE Eric Lair, WR Da'Jon McKnight, T Ed Olson.
Defense (5): LB Keanon Cooper, E Anthony Jacobs, T Brandon Kirksey, LB Gary Tinsley, E D.L. Wilhite.
Special teams (1): P Dan Orseske.
In many ways, Kill is perfect for this job, accustomed to winning in less-than-ideal situations. But Kill has his work cut out for him on both sides of the ball in Minnesota, which hasn't gone to the Rose Bowl since the 1961 season -- the longest drought of any Big Ten school.

The Golden Gophers ranked 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (23.2 ppg) and ninth in scoring defense (33.0 ppg) last season. Kills knows that, but he has taken the job without any preconceived notions. He believes he can win.

Good thing, because Minnesota has been a coaching graveyard. Since 1985, the only coach who left for a better job was Lou Holtz. And he left the program wracked with probation when he departed for Notre Dame. Those who followed -- John Gutekunst, Jim Wacker, Glen Mason and Brewster -- haven't been head coaches again.

Here's a look at the Golden Gophers as they prepare for spring drills.

Positions of strength

There aren't many. The Gophers have potential at linebacker, and the unit will be bolstered by the addition of Florida transfer Brendan Beal. He was all-everything coming out of high school, but injuries and depth at Florida helped push him out. Beal could become a major piece of the defense for the next three seasons. The new staff will have lots of running backs to work with, as the roster goes five-deep. And that's good because running back is a key spot in coordinator Matt Limegrover's offense. Donnell Kirkwood, who played well in small doses early last season before a leg injury, and Devon Wright are young guys who could see a lot of carries. Neither is fast, but both have vision and hit the hole hard. WR Da'Jon McKnight has all-conference-type talent. But the other receiver spots are huge questions with MarQueis Gray moving back to quarterback full-time and Brandon Green returning after missing last season with a knee injury.

Help is needed

The defense is horrible. Time and again in 2010, Minnesota got run over, ranking last in the Big Ten against the run (191.4 ypg). Some playmakers are needed for a unit that ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss, and eighth in turnovers generated (19). The lack of pressure and big plays puts too much pressure on a secondary that has issues of its own. The offense needs better production from the line to improve a rushing attack that ranked 10th in the Big Ten (135.3 ypg). There will be lots of competition and plenty of young talent that could end up starting. True freshman Josh Campion took a year off from school, then played a semester at a prep school. He could play right away. The team will miss QB Adam Weber, who made 50 consecutive starts and is No. 1 in school history in attempts, completions, yards and touchdown passes.

3 guys to watch

DE/DT Anthony Jacobs: Jacobs, a former four-star recruit, easily was the Gophers' best defensive lineman at the end of last season. The 300-pound Jacobs has 67 career tackles and 4.5 sacks. He could top those totals this season.

TE Eric Lair: He entered 2010 as an unknown but went on to haul in 39 receptions and two touchdown catches. Lair has the ability to block, stretch the field and line up at as a fullback/H-back. Lair could become a star in the new offense.

CB/KR Troy Stoudermire: He already is established as a dangerous kick returner, totaling 2,929 career return yards and ranking as the school's career leader in kickoff-return yards. By the end of last season, Stoudermire was coming on as a cornerback after a midseason switch from receiver. He made six starts in the secondary and has great potential.

The pressure is on

QB MarQueis Gray: He never could beat out Adam Weber, which is why he saw action at receiver. But in this offense, Gray (6-4/230) could excel if the line does its part. He's a much better athlete than Chandler Harnish, the Northern Illinois signal-caller who excelled in this offense under Kill. Gray has to show he can handle the job this spring.

The buzz

Kill's arrival has energized a fan base that had begun to tune out Brewster's hyperbole. The biggest question mark may be how the team buys into the disciplined and up-tempo practices of Kill. He is demanding of his players during practice, which will be a big change from under Brewster. Kill has won everywhere he has been, but can he do it at Minnesota? It may take time for a team that has had four coordinators on each side of the ball since the time Brewster took over. But Kill is a talented coach who will benefit from bringing most of his staff with him from Northern Illinois. There actually looks as if there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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