Three things to consider as Gophers open against UNLV


August 30, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; UNLV Rebels running back Tim Cornett (35) runs the ball against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the overtime period at Sam Boyd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 Gophers football season kicks off on Aug. 29 against the UNLV Rebels at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Though weeks away, it’s never too early to start thinking about game day. Training camp is now open and unlike the pros, we will not get to judge the Golden Gophers progress based on a preseason slate of games. With limited inter-squad information available to the coaches, it’s time as fans to start the conversation on some topics leading up to the third year under head coach Jerry Kill.

1. Who will lead the Gophers out of the gate? — Minnesota has been a fairly inexperienced team over the last couple seasons. With stronger depth at many positions leading in to this year, who will carry the team? Offensively, the team will probably rely on your traditional areas of interest. At running back Donnell Kirkwood will move the chains on the ground for the Gophers. At quarterback, it seems to be Philip Nelson’s job, but Mitch Leidner will probably start seeing some live game action in his redshirt freshman season.

The one area of discontent on offense that will need to find a leader will be at wide receiver. Junior Devin Crawford-Tufts recently left the team and last season’s leading receiver A.J. Barker was booted from the mind of the program farther than kicker Jordan Wettstein’s 2012 kickoff average length of 62.3 yards.

The receiver that I think will lead the team is Jamel Harbison. The redshirt freshmen is returning from an ACL injury that he suffered in last season’s opener to the Rebels. Maybe he has spent the last year watching Adrian Peterson’s similar rehab from across town and wants to stick it to UNLV out of the gates and set the tone for a strong season. The coaching staff probably will want to ease him back into the fold, but if this game goes to triple-overtime again, they will probably look for one of their biggest offensive threats.

Defensively it sounds as if linebacker Aaron Hill has taken the steps to be the leader of the defense. Continued strong play from Ra’Shede Hageman, Derrick Wells, and Brock Vereen will make the defense better as a unit and help share the leadership amongst the group.

The star of the defense as a player and as a leader might be Cedric Thompson. If you didn’t get a chance to read up on his personal story via Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I would recommend it. Thompson went from the dangerous streets of South Central L.A., to the California desert, to the university all on the hard work and dedication it takes to be a leader.

2. Are we going to have to sweat out another triple-overtime game against the Rebels? — No. UNLV as the home team last year against a young Minnesota team received some breaks and the Golden Gophers couldn’t finish them off. The constant shift for MarQueis Gray between quarterback and wide receiver made his play suspect at the beginning of the year.

The Rebels do have some returning talent from last season, especially senior tailback Tim Cornett. He put up 131 yards rushing and two touchdowns last year against the Gophers at Sam Boyd Stadium and ended his junior year with 1,232 net yards on the ground — the fifth highest total in school history.

Sophomore quarterback Nick Sherry put up some impressive numbers in his freshmen year in the Mountain West Conference last season. His 2,544 yards passing was good for fourth all-time by a Mountain West Conference freshman. He was only 118 yards shy of the record and sites in the Top-5 just ahead of current Cincinnati Bengals signal caller Andy Dalton. Look for the big 6-foot-5 Sherry to be a focus of the front-four of Minnesota on opening night.

The Rebels only forced single digits defensively once last year and did not win a single game on the road. To be honest, UNLV has not won a road football game since Oct. 24, 2009. That is a long time since last silencing a home crowd as the visitors. Their defense is porous and the Minnesota offense should have little trouble getting multiple players reps at whatever positions they want them to play.

3. When can we start tailgating for the opener? — This may be the hardest question to answer of them all. It came out in the Game Day Guide for the UNLV game when season tickets were mailed out, that tailgating for the Thursday night 6:00 p.m. CST game would begin at 3:00 p.m. The time was changed back to 2 p.m. after the materials were printed according to Gopher Football.

Being that it is a work day and the Minnesota State Fair is going on not far from campus, there will be limited parking lot availability. This also will put a damper on the new student tailgate lot that was announced by the university for this fall.

There will be plenty of students on campus already as the freshmen will be elbow deep in Welcome Week orientation and they will each receive a free ticket to the game in order to peak their interest in the program.

If you want to start tailgating for the opener tomorrow, go right ahead. If you have unlimited access to a nearby parking lot, please invite me over. There is no time like the present to get the coals hot on the grill and start slow cooking Tim Brewster’s famous chili recipe.

If you plan on being on campus for the opener from sunrise to the last whistle, remember that the popular hangout Sally’s has closed down for the next year due to apartment construction. The light rail construction has pretty much finished and there has even been some live train-on-track testing in the area captured by the good people at Stub and Herbs.

There are plenty of eateries in the area for your enjoyment and if you are truly brave enough, you would fill up on foods via “the stick” at the State Fair all afternoon and bus back to Stadium Village for the game. However you decide to take in the 2013 home opener versus UNLV, just make sure you rest your voice for a long night of cheering.

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