The Gophers put their season to bed against Illinois last week with a 27-7 victory. The win was one of only three in the first year of the Jerry Kill era.
Minnesota can now look ahead to the 2012 season. Kill has had a full year in Minnesota and will be able to control the recruiting and offseason training for the first time going into next year.
Some of the Gophers’ issues have been corrected, but problems still exist.
For one, Kill has expressed concern throughout the year about the state of the team’s academic standing.
Kill said Minnesota was hovering close to falling below the required Academic Progress Rate guidelines. Kill and his staff enforced a check-in policy this season for the players to wake up and check-in with a team official before going to class.
The Gophers honored 24 seniors graduating from the team Saturday and will have to replace a large percentage of them. Quarterback MarQueis Gray played his first full season at the position and will be back, but most of his offensive weapons will depart, including starting running back Duane Bennett, wide receiver Da’Jon McKnight and both tight ends — Eric Lair and Collin McGarry.
“I’m still going to be the leader and help those new guys coming in,” Gray said.
The position battles have already begun as Kill and his staff had the team back in the training room Monday following the end of the season for lifting, running and conditioning. McKnight said he believes that the wide receiving corps will be able to step up in his absence.
“Most of them played this year, Devin [Crawford-Tufts], BG [Brandon Green], Ge’Shaun [Harris]. They’re going to be fine,” McKnight said. “They’ll be comfortable with the system and play fast.”
The offensive line is one position on the field that has some depth to look forward to next season. Eleven different offensive linemen played this season and Minnesota has two big recruits committed in Jonah Pirsig and Isaac Hayes.
“The offensive line has got a lot of young kids and they’re going to get bigger and stronger,” Kill said.
Minnesota’s defense was showing signs of life in the latter half of the season, but it will also be hit hard with departures. Starting defensive tackles Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs and five defensive backs graduate this year. The Gophers will have to depend on a lot of younger players to take over.
“They’ll grow up fast. You get not only spring ball and another fall camp, so they’ll get two good doses of it before we start again,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said.
Ra’Shede Hageman is one of the leading candidates to take over a defensive tackle position. He was recruited heavily out of high school as a tight end, but converted to the defensive line. He recorded two sacks in the final game against Illinois.
“He’s a big man and a hard guy to handle in there,” Kill said.
One defensive senior the Gophers hope to return is Troy Stoudermire, who missed most of the season with a broken arm. He would have to file for a medical hardship waiver and be granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA.
“I’m very excited to get a chance to come back and play football,” Stoudermire said. “I haven’t heard anything. Hopefully it’s good news.”
Recruiting will be the next step for Kill and his staff to supplement the current Gophers roster.
“Not being in a bowl game, can we do more recruiting?” Kill asked rhetorically. “You bet. You’ve got more time to watch film.” He added, “I’ll be on the road as soon as I can get out on the road.”
Conditioning for the current roster will begin swiftly, according to Kill. After the win against Illinois, Kill was not shy about what needed to be done for Minnesota to compete at a higher level next season.
“We’re going to go back to work on Monday. We know we aren’t strong enough or fast enough yet,” Kill said. “We’re not going to take a lot of time off. Our offseason will be much different than it was a year ago. It will be much tougher and much different.”
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