Minnesota exceeded pretty much everyone's expectations in 2013 with an 8-5 record. Most preseason projections had the Gophers in the 5-7 win range for the regular season. Halfway through the season those predictions looked to be accurate or even optimistic after the Gophers dropped their first two Big Ten games to Iowa and Michigan and head coach Jerry Kill was forced to take a leave of absence due to his epilepsy. But under the guidance of defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys the Gophers rallied to win four straight conference games against Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana, and Penn State. The Gophers offense then fell off as the Gophers lost their final three games to Wisconsin, Michigan State, and a disappointing bowl loss to Syracuse, a team the Gophers should have beat.
Heading into the season, expectations were high for Donnell Kirkwood and fans were optimistic that Philip Nelson would make strides in his second season under season, but Kirkwood battled injuries and David Cobb stepped into his role as primary ball carrier and didn't give it back rushing for 1,202 yards. Nelson fared better than Kirkwood but was unable to play well on a consistent basis and split time with Mitch Leidner. The unrest at quarterback was a large part of the offensive dropoff at the end of the season. Part of that struggle was the receivers, or lack thereof, that the quarterbacks were throwing the ball to. The Gophers most consistent threat, Derrick Engel, missed the final three games after tearing an ACL in practice. In his absence true freshman receivers Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky showed flashes of what could be, but they were just freshman and disappeared often. The only other real receiving threat the Gophers had was redshirt freshman Maxx Williams. Williams ended up surpassing Engel as the Gophers leading receiver with 25 grabs for 417 yards and 5 TDs. Williams could very well end up an All-B1G TE by the time he graduates and has very realistic aspirations of playing in the NFL.
Another Gopher who could potentially get looks from NFL teams if he builds on his 2013 campaign is David Cobb, who as mentioned earlier, rushed for 1,202 yards in 2013 after starting the year 3rd on the depth chart. Cobb displayed good vision, speed, agility, and toughness but couldn't have posted the numbers he did without good play from his offensive line. The Gophers line stayed relatively healthy this year. The line did lose center Jon Christenson at about the midway point and right guard Caleb Bak missed the final three games, but the Gophers had enough depth and experience that those losses weren't devastating.
The Gophers defense had some key pieces to replace in 2013 and not only replaced them, but also showed a fair amount of improvement, especially as the year progressed. The standout on defense was of course Rashede Hageman, who got some talk as a potential first round pick before the year started. Hageman has now been projected as high as the mid-first after his strong senior campaign. Aaron Hill and Brock Vereen also played very well in their final year in Maroon and Gold and will be tough to replace in 2014.
Other than Hageman, the player with the most buzz heading into the season defensively was CB Derrick Wells. Wells unfortunately did not live up to the hype, largely due to nagging injuries, however, Wells void was filled by Vereen who slid over from safety. Sophomore Eric Murray also played well at corner which was needed because the Gophers didn't have a lot of depth at the position after Briean Boddy-Calhoun went down for the season.
At LB, Aaron Hill and Damion Wilson led the way with consistently strong play. Both James Manuel and DeVondre Campbell showed flashes but couldn't perform at a high level consistently. Both Campbell and Wilson return next year and should anchor a solid, but not great, linebacker core. In front of Campbell and Wilson, the Gophers again showed improvement. The defensive line had to replace their sack leader in D.L. Wilhite. Sophomore DE Thieren Cockran stepped into Wilhite's shoes ending the season with 7.5 sacks. Inside the Gophers were improved as well adding back Roland Johnson after he tore his ACL in the middle of the 2012 season. Putting Johnson in next to Hageman as with Botticelli and Ekpe also getting good reps led to fairly consistent penetration.
Overall, this unit played with a lot more confidence than past Gopher defenses and for good reason. This was by far the strength of the Gopher team and while they may take a step back next year with some key losses, they should still be a solid unit.
Brice Marich also contributed to this article