Former Minnesota Coach Tim Brewster emphasized the importance of winning trophy games in his four-year tenure with the Golden Gophers.
The Gophers dropped all 10 trophy games in Brewster's tenure, which ended mid-season in the middle of a nine-game losing streak. Ironically, the Gophers did finish the season with a trophy win — 27-24 over Iowa to claim Floyd of Rosedale — well after Brewster left the program.
New Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill won't sink into the win-or-else trophy game rhetoric that inevitably sunk Brewster. Kill respects the tradition of playing Iowa and Wisconsin annually in rivalry games, but he's more interested in building a program than stuffing the Gophers' trophy case.
"I don't think there's any question the state of Minnesota is hungry for a good football team," said Kill, who coached Northern Illinois last year. "I think they want us to get better. Do they talk about the rivalries here? You bet. I do. That's college football. That's important. That's all a part of it.
"Right now our concentration better not be on anything but our football team getting better from a coaching staff standpoint. I think the fans understand that."
The Gophers have some chemistry-altering personnel changes entering this season, beginning at quarterback. MarQueis Gray steps in for four-year starter Adam Weber, who served as the team's unofficial spokesman during his tenure. Gray shifted between receiver and quarterback last year, completing just two passes but catching 42 and scoring five touchdowns.
Gray, an incoming junior, is a mobile quarterback, which gives the Gophers more options on offense. He's already impressed Kill.
"He's really surprised me for a kid that was hurt his high school senior year, then hasn't played quarterback, then making the transition to the position," Kill said. "He's learned very well. He's a very quick learner. He doesn't make the same mistake twice. He's a tremendous athlete. No question about that. I think Coach (Jim) Zebrowski, our quarterback coach, has done a heck of a job with him.
"I'm very pleased with his progress and pleasantly surprised."
Gray hasn't played strictly at quarterback since his junior year of high school. He alternated with Weber in 2009 to give the Gophers a running option and he rushed for 265 yards.
"Unfortunately I didn't get to play once I got up here, but I got a chance to learn from our quarterback Adam Weber, a leader on and off the field," Gray said. "Just playing receiver was fun, getting my feet wet playing Big Ten football. I'm looking forward to playing quarterback this year, waiting for the upcoming season."
The Gophers return most of their other skill position leaders such as top rushers Deleon Eskridge and Duane Bennett, and top wideout Da'Jon McKnight. Gray was second in catches last year.
Minnesota loses three starters along the offensive line and its safety tandem of Kyle Theret and Ryan Collado. But the Gophers had the Big Ten's worst rushing defense so changes may be in store anyway.
"I think we have to improve our talent pool," Kill said. "I don't think there's any question about that. I've always said coaches don't win games, players do, and the team with the best players usually wins.
"We have a lot of work to do. But I think the kids we have here are working hard."
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
- Division: Legends
- 2010 record: 3-9, 2-6 Big Ten
- Returning offensive starters (6):RB Duane Bennett, LG Chris Bunders, WR MarQueis Gray, TE Eric Lair, WR Da'Jon McKnight, LT Ed Olson
- Returning defensive starters (8):CB Michael Carter, LB Keanon Cooper, DE Anthony Jacobs, DT Brandon Kirksey, LB Mike Rallis, CB Troy Stoudamire, LB Gary Tinsley, DE D.L. Wilhite
- 2010 review:Minnesota suffered perhaps its worst defeat in school history, a 41-38 loss to recent Division II emigree South Dakota, in the season's second week. That started a nine-game losing streak that cost Coach Tim Brewster his job. Minnesota did rally late in the year to knock off bowl-bound Illinois and then upset rival Iowa in the season finale to earn the Floyd of Rosedale traveling trophy.
- 2011 schedule: S3 at USC; S10 New Mexico State; S17 Miami (Ohio); S24 North Dakota State; O1 at Michigan; O8 at Purdue; O22 Nebraska; O29 Iowa; N5 at Michigan State; N12 Wisconsin; N19 at Northwestern; N26 Illinois
- Noteworthy:The Gophers were among the few schools completely satisfied with the Big Ten divisional shuffle. Minnesota is locked into the Legends Division with longtime rival Iowa, newcomer Nebraska, which has played the Gophers 51 times, and Michigan, which it will play annually for the Little Brown Jug, the oldest traveling trophy in Division I football. In cross-divisional matchups, Minnesota will face Wisconsin annually in the most-played Division I football rivalry.
- Quotable: “I believe in winning football games. You lose more than you win because of turning the ball over, jumping off-sides, dumb things. We're pretty tough on them. When they make a mistake, they know that we're going to hold them accountable. So far this spring, I think the kids are starting to understand that." — Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill