Debriefing: It won’t be pretty, but Kill can lift Minnesota out of the hole

The least you should know about the 2011 Golden Gophers. Part of Big Ten Week.

You'll know if things are going well. New coach Jerry Kill wasted no time establishing himself as the anti-Tim Brewster, countering his predecessor's relatively thin resumé with a 17-year climb through more obscure reaches of the Midwest and the rah-rah atmosphere of the Brewster era with several doses of tough love. (Tough and hilarious, as long as it's not directed at you: If at least half the fraternities on campus this year don't have shirts that say "Kill's Minnesota Lophers," I'm going to be very disappointed.) It's all peachy so far.

Long-term, though, his mandate for success isn't so clear-cut. Whatever the mark was, Brewster certainly never came close to meeting it, with a pair of Insight Bowl losses bookended by a one-win disaster in 2007 and an abbreviated farewell tour in 2010. But his predecessor, Glen Mason, was fired in 2006 despite taking the Gophers to six bowl games and two top-20 finishes in seven years, easily the best run at Minnesota since the early sixties. If Kill gets the ship back in that rut within a year or two, the faithful will be ecstatic — for a while. If they're looking for more than a steady diet of 6-6 or 7-5 marks with the occasional 9-3 Outback Bowl in the best years, he'd better enjoy the honeymoon.

Sealed with a MarQueis. A certain faction of Gopher fans has clamored for two years for more of quarterback MarQueis Gray, with one minor complication: The old coaching staff(s) were clearly afraid to let him put the ball in the air. Gray arrived from a year in prep school in 2009 as the most hyped Minnesota signee of the past decade, and earned regular "Wildcat" carries from the shotgun as a freshman; at one point that season, he even completed five of six passes with a touchdown to go with 81 yards rushing in garbage time of a loss at Ohio State. But Gray never supplanted the mediocre Adam Weber as the starter — or was never given the chance to — and spent almost all of 2010 running routes as a full-time wide receiver.

When Kill was hired in December, Gray reportedly met his new coach outside the facility to say he wanted to play quarterback; with Weber on his way out and Da'John McKnight and Eric Lair ensuring the presence of reliable targets, Kill responded by all but naming Gray the starter less than two weeks later. Coaches and players alike praised Gray in the spring for his work ethic and going "above and beyond in his preparation," leaving no doubts about his hold on the position over the summer. If it works, he could become a latter-day version of Antwaan Randle-El, only with much better size.

The only remaining question: Can he actually, you know, throw?{YSP:MORE}

Getting back in the zone. Given one of the conference's most anemic rushing attacks, it probably won't take long to find out. The Gophers were held below four yards per carry last year in eight of twelve games, and broke one run all season longer than 30 yards — for 32 yards against Middle Tennessee State.

The only optimism whatsoever on the ground comes from the season finale, a 27-24 stunner over Iowa, in which Gray (right) and returning tailbacks Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge combined to run for 193 yards and three touchdowns. That was at least vaguely reminiscent of the dominant zone-running attacks that churned out 1,000-yard back after 1,000-yard back under Mason, often two at a time. Kill and longtime offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover haven't overseen anything quite that prolific, but they have had success at Northern Illinosi with downhill, zone-read and "Pistol" sets that have produced a 1,000-yard rusher (Chad Spann) and the No. 1 ground game in the MAC each of the last two years — in no small part by keeping the quarterback heavily involved as a running threat.

A little help please. Minnesota earned all of eight sacks in 2010 — Yes, eight sacks. By the entire team. Over the entire season. — almost half of which graduated with defensive end Jewhan Edwards, the team leader with three. That number was the worst in the country, and would have been worse if not for an improbably three-sack afternoon in the late-season upset over Illinois.

That number will also come up in 2011, if only because it's the kind of rotten stat that's too bad not to improve. But it's still looking like another long year of extended coverage for a rebuilding secondary that wasn't that good to begin with.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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