The Gophers' two biggest playmakers felt Minnesota had the talent to be a winner, but the program was in a downward spiral. Fourth-year coach Tim Brewster's team sputtered to a 1-6 start last year. Things got worse when Brewster was fired and Minnesota lost three more games under interim coach Jeff Horton.
But the Gophers' leaders weren't about to wait until this season to start a turnaround.
On Nov. 13, Minnesota won its first road game in almost 14 months, beating Illinois 38-34. The Gophers followed that victory with their first win over Iowa since 2006, also the school's first victory against a top-25 opponent since 2005.
"It's been very frustrating because we have passionate guys on our team that don't like losing," said Gray, a junior, "but those two wins and ending the way we did, it gave us such a lift. Guys were working harder in the offseason than they have since I have been here."
Now, under first-year head coach Jerry Kill, the excitement is starting to return to Minnesota football. The changes might not come overnight, but Kill brought over his offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators, coaches who helped Northern Illinois go 11-3 last season.
If the Gophers become bowl eligible this season, it would be considered a Kill miracle. Minnesota will replace long-time quarterback Adam Weber with the dual-threat Gray, who started at wide receiver last season. But with Bennett, a senior, and Gray in the mix, the offense will certainly be more explosive. Bennett, who ran for 529 yards last season, will be the team's No. 1 running back.
"Adam was a very good leader and a very good player, and I think replacing him will be a tall order," Kill said at Big Ten media days. "But I think Duane and MarQueis started to take on that role in the spring. We emphasized that they needed to do that. The kids have been, to this point, able to handle themselves pretty well."
Kill is the third Gophers head coach for Bennett, who is finally starting to settle into what has amounted to an ongoing transition. He racked up 848 rushing and receiving yards combined last season, success he said has been forged by setbacks.
"I felt comfortable with the players more than the coaches, which made it easier to deal with the changes," Bennett said. "When I hurt my knee (in 2008), the guys helped keep me going and didn't let me get into a negative light. Things could have gone an entirely different way, and I am glad they didn't because I am excited to be playing for Coach Kill. To be able to go through that made me stronger."
Bennett is one of the key pieces to what appears to be an offense with a lot of potential. Minnesota returns senior wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight, who led the Gophers in catches (48), receiving yards (750) and touchdowns (10) last season, and an experienced group of offensive linemen that includes fifth-year seniors Chris Bunders, Ryan Orton and Ryan Wynn.
"We've got some wily veterans that can show our young guys the ropes," Bennett said. "That's only going to allow us to build off last season, do different things and not be one-dimensional."
Gray is looking to make his first true footprints as a quarterback after catching 42 passes for 587 yards last year as a receiver. With Weber having graduated, Kill has turned to Gray to be the team's dual-threat quarterback, a decision that has given the 6-foot-4, 229-pounder an overwhelming sense of confidence.
"It's more confidence because I actually know what I am going to be doing," Gray said. "I took a lot of time to study film, prepared myself to be a quarterback, brought guys up to speed and helped the young guys out. I just feel good with where I am at heading into camp."
Like a lot of teams in the conference, Minnesota's defense seems to be a key weakness, particularly the defensive line. Brewster's run defense was last in the Big Ten, while the pass rush was the worst in America with a nation-low eight sacks. Surprisingly, the pass defense didn't give up a ton of yards, but it was an inefficient secondary, ranking 113th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Former UW safety Kim Royston was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, and it will be interesting to see how he performs.
"I think we struggled on defense for a while," Kill said. "We always say, What's the answers, and those things. I can't speak on the past, I can only speak on the future of the thing. I think the number one thing as far as we're concerned on defense in the spring is we got to make sure we get people in the right places. We base out of a 4-3 defense. We'll do different things out of that particular defense.
"I think the big key for us is to make sure our people understand the defensive scheme we have in front of them. Are we going to be able to be exactly like we'd like to be right off the bat? Probably not. We don't want to ask kids to do something they can't do. The critical thing in coaching is to take the kids you have and make sure you give them the chance to be successful."
The Badgers have won seven straight in the series, the most dominant run in the series' long history. But with the Gophers hosting the Badgers and knowing they have the ability to win a big game, anything is possible in what has been a one-sided rivalry.
Overall Record: Minnesota leads 59-53-8
Record in Minneapolis: Minnesota leads 38-23-2
Last Meeting: Wisconsin won, 41-23, in Madison in 2010