The countdown to Big Ten media days, July 28-29 in Chicago, is certainly under way. We're excited, you're excited, the players and coaches are excited. To get you ready, we're running through three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear at the Hilton Chicago.
Minnesota is up next. The Gophers improved their win total from six to eight in 2013 and bring back some good pieces on both sides of the ball. Coach Jerry Kill will be in Chicago along with quarterback Mitch Leidner, running back David Cobb and safety Cedric Thompson.
1. How can the passing game improve?
Minnesota has returned to its power-run roots under Kill, finishing second in the Big Ten in rushing attempts (586) and fourth in rushing yards (2,538) last season. The Gophers bring back a good group of backs, led by 1,200-yard rusher Cobb, as well as four starting offensive linemen from 2013. But there needs to be more balance in the passing game after Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally last fall. It's Leidner's show at quarterback, but he must improve his accuracy and his production. The Gophers are expecting jumps from young wideouts Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones, as well as continued development from tight end Maxx Williams, who led the team with 417 receiving yards in 2013.
2. What are realistic expectations for the defense?
After producing no NFL draft picks in 2011, 2012 or 2013, Minnesota's defense had two players drafted in the first four rounds in May -- defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen. Both were unique players -- Hageman with his size, Vereen with his versatility -- who leave big shoes to fill. But coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks the unit can be better with improved overall depth. So, who provides the star power? Defensive end Theiren Cockran, who quietly led the Big Ten in forced fumbles (four) and finished third in sacks (7.5), will anchor the line. Claeys pegs Damien Wilson to lead from the linebacker spot, and the secondary has good depth at cornerback. Thompson had a great spring at safety. If Minnesota plans to match or exceed last year's success, the defense must keep progressing.
3. How is Kill's health, and what will his role be this fall?
It's not the topic Kill and his players want to focus on in Chicago, but it remains relevant until Kill gets through an entire season without any major health scares. He has worked extremely hard with his doctors to get his epilepsy under control, and he said this spring that he plans to coach from the sideline, where he spent the second half of the Texas Bowl before working mostly from the press box in 2013. We know Kill's coaching staff, led by Claeys, is more than capable of filling in if he has to step away. But Minnesota obviously doesn't want any distractions as it aims to challenge for the West Division despite a challenging schedule.