Coach Jerry Kill knows it's time for the Gophers to start making progress on the field.
"We know we need to get better," Kill said. "We made some strides last season, but there are big improvements that need to be made. That's what we hope to do once spring practice begins."
Minnesota went 3-9 in Kill's first season in 2011, the same record it finished with in 2010. The talent gap between the Gophers and the upper regions of the Big Ten is still wide. Kill knows there's only one way to bridge that gap for now and that's with hard work.
"We did that last season and we'll do it again," he said. "I have to give our kids a lot of credit. They bought into what we talked them about a year ago. It probably took longer than we wanted, but they eventually bought into it. That's why I was excited about how we finished last season and why I'm excited about getting at it again this season."
Minnesota's two conference wins came at home against Iowa on Oct. 29 and Illinois in the season finale. While instilling toughness will again be one of Kill's major goals, improving Minnesota's defense will be the top on-field priority. The Gophers allowed an average of 31.7 points a game last season and gave up at least 28 points eight times in 12 games. Minnesota also had games where it allowed 58, 45, 42 and 41 points.
Top Of The Class
WR Andre McDonald (Hopkins High School, Minnetonka, Minn.)-McDonald is ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the state of Minnesota and the No. 68 wide receiver in the nation by Rivals.com. He caught 60 passes for 1,253 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior.
CB Martez Shabazz (Trinity Valley Community College, Texas)-He will have two years of eligibility and should compete for a job in the starting defensive backfield. Shabazz, who will be one of the fastest players on the team, is ranked as a three-star recruit by Rivals.com and a two-star recruit by Scout.com.
DE Alex Keith (Hickman High School, Columbia, Mo.)-The fact he recorded 12 1/2 sacks as a senior makes him an instant candidate for playing time on the Gophers' anemic defense. Keith is listed as a two-star prospect by Rivals.com and Scout.com.
• PK Chris Hawthorne, who missed the last five games because of a sore quad muscle, could be in for competition in spring practice. Hawthorne, a transfer from North Carolina State, made 6-of-9 field goal attempts with a long kick of 47 yards, before being injured. Walk-on Jordan Wettstein replaced Hawthorne and made all six of his field goal tries, including a 51-yarder against Illinois.
• WR Isaac Fruechte, a junior college transfer, signed with the Gophers in December and enrolled in school in January. He played in 2010 at Rochester (Minn.) Community and Technical College and was redshirted last season. Fruechte's speed will put him in competition for a starting job. He will have three years of eligibility.
• DB Jeremy Baltazar, another junior college transfer, could provide the defense with an instant upgrade. He played two seasons at Blinn Community College (Calif.). Baltazar signed with the Gophers in December and enrolled in school in January. He earned a two-star ranking from Rivals.com.
Practice priorities: Coach Jerry Kill will put his team through another rigorous spring practice. The returning players know what to expect this time, but that probably won't make it any easier. Kill will once again preach toughness, especially on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Refining quarterback MarQueis Gray's throwing skills will be one of the top priorities.
Quote To Note: "The most important thing for us was to make sure we got kids that fit in here with our system and what we expect. I think we did that. And then of course we needed to improve the athleticism and speed in our football program and I think we did that too."-Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, on the Gophers' 2012 recruiting class.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Key Losses: Minnesota returns several starters, but will have major holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Leading rusher Duane Bennett and leading receiver Da'Jon McKnight must be replaced on offense. Center Ryan Wynn and guard/tackle Chris Bunders will have to be replaced on the offensive line. The defense has lost safety Kim Royston and linebacker Gary Tinsley, its two leading tacklers.
Players To Watch In 2012:
QB MarQueis Gray-Gray made progress in his first season at quarterback and should be able to build on that in 2012. Gray's outstanding athletic ability makes him a threat to run and throw. He accounted for 14 touchdowns last season (eight passing and six rushing). Gray gained a school-record 966 yards rushing for quarterbacks and cracked the 100-yard mark four times. He completed 50.7 percent of his passes for 1,495 yards. He threw eight interceptions and still needs to improve on his technique and decision-making.
WR/KR Marcus Jones-Jones missed the final five games with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, but coach Jerry Kill expects him to be ready for spring practice. Jones caught nine passes for 158 yards and a 20.3-yard average per catch. He returned 13 kickoffs for a 28.5-yard average, including a 92-yard return for a touchdown.
LB Mike Rallis-Rallis has been a steady performer in his first three seasons and there's no reason to think that will change in his senior year. He was third on the team with 83 tackles, including five for a loss of yardage in 2010.
CB/KR Troy Stoudermire-The Gophers got some good news when Stoudermire was granted a medical hardship waiver by the Big Ten Conference after missing most of last season with a fractured left wrist. He will have one season of eligibility remaining for the 2012 season. Stoudermire is the Big Ten and Minnesota school record-holder for kickoff return yards with 3,102. Through four games last season, he recorded 24 tackles with three tackles for loss and two interceptions.
• OT Jimmy Gjere, who missed the last seven games because of a concussion, will compete for a starting job in spring practice.
• DE Leston Simpson played in the first two games in 2011, but missed the rest of the season with a head injury. He's expected to compete for playing time in spring practice.
• LB Nick Rallis will join his brother, Mike, in the Gophers' program. Nick played safety at Edina High School in Minnesota, but projects as a linebacker at the collegiate level. Rallis missed all but three games of his senior season with an injury.