If someone told you that Philip Nelson would boom from third in the quarterback depth chart to the starting signal caller by the beginning of the season, you would not have thought that Minnesota would go to a bowl game.
If someone told you that Derrick Engel and A.J. Barker would be the top two receivers for Minnesota, both of whom are walk-ons, you would not have thought that Minnesota would go to a bowl game.
With a vast improvement on the defensive side of the ball and having players buying into the coaching philosophy, the Gophers dismissed the doubters.
Minnesota continued to surprise doubters during Friday’s Meineke Car Care Bowl. The team narrowly lost to Texas Tech with a last second field goal, losing 34-31. During the game, the defense locked down a potent Texas Tech offense in the second half, and the Gophers were consistent in the running game.
Even with the heartbreaking loss, Minnesota should be tremendously pleased with the season. The program headed into the fall as an inexperienced team in many aspects of the game, but the Gophers surprised us all.
From the beginning of the season with a game-winning overtime field goal by Jordan Wettstein over UNLV to a game-losing field goal at the end of the regulation at Meineke Car Care Bowl to the Red Raiders, a 6-7 record for 2012 is memorable.
It all starts with the quarterback position. MarQueis Gray came into the season as the man under center, and he performed well until he was injured. Then, Kill turned to sophomore Max Shortell. The second-year quarterback did not play terribly, but his play spurned the coaching staff to turn to a freshman and future ‘savior’ of Minnesota football: Philip Nelson.
Prep expert Tom Lemming pronounced Nelson was the second-best incoming quarterback in the nation. The Minnesota coaching staff turned to Nelson and started him against Wisconsin. A true freshman quarterback starting in the Big Ten is a crazy and rare thought. Although there were growing pains along the way, Nelson was productive in his opening campaign.
Completing less than 50 percent of his passes should not be a trend as the Gophers head into next season. The tools are there for the freshman quarterback. He has the quarterback strength and mentality, but it’s the throwing motion in the pocket that really gets people excited about Nelson.
Nelson is going to be a top-tier quarterback in the future.
With Nelson slated as the signal caller for next season, the Gophers should feel fairly confident about their lackluster offense. The running back tandem of Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams proved to be effective late in the season, and both were underclassmen. Kirkwood finished with over 900 rushing yards on the season along with six touchdowns.
It is the receivers that raise the question marks overall in the team. With Barker’s departure, Minnesota’s top receiver is Derrick Engel. The walk-on will be a senior next season and heads the question mark unit. Devin Crawford-Tufts has yet to show major flashes in his first two seasons as a Gopher, and Andre McDonald was spotty during his freshman year. But, there is potential.
Speaking of potential, the potential of the secondary held true this season with the Gophers.
Former four-star recruit, Michael Carter, showed that he could be a top-tier cornerback. The secondary as a whole was consistent in every game. Brock Vereen, Derrick Wells, and Cedric Thompson will return next year at safety. Junior Martez Shabazz will shift to the first team at cornerback, while true freshman Antonio Johnson and Demarius Travis proved that they could play at the Big Ten level.
Overall, the outlook for Minnesota is bright. The offense played poorly for most of the season, but it was full of youth. It will only get better under the tutelage of Kill’s coaching staff. With Tracey Claeys at defensive coordinator, pieces will be moved around and continue to be successful on that side of the ball.
Ra’Shede Hageman will be the leader of the team next fall after being announced as the future team captain. Other leaders will include Vereen and linebacker Aaron Hill.
Six wins and a bowl appearance was the overall goal for the Gophers this season. They did it with quarterback turmoil and offensive inconsistency.
Next year, the goal will not be having another bowl-caliber season — it will be to have a winning season.