You want a sure sign that football is upon us?
Well, here's one: We've wound to the end of our preseason previews of Big Ten teams.
The last team ...
Last year's record: 3-9, 2-6 Big Ten
Vs. Top 25: 0-5
Returning starters: Offense 6, defense 5, special teams 2
Head coach: Jerry Kill (second season at school)
The skinny on offense: MarQueis Gray, the Gophers' senior quarterback, is one of the most impressive athletes you'll see anywhere on the planet. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, he looks like a defensive end. Yet he rushed for 966 yards on 4.9 per carry last season. This season, he is intent on completing 60 percent of his passes after barely clearing 50 percent last season. "I think he'll be a very, very exciting player to watch, not only in the Big Ten but throughout the country," Kill said. "Our big deal is we need to get people around him. We've got to get receivers and running backs and people that can step up and make plays. We've worked hard in recruiting to do that." The Gophers have very limited experience at receiver and running back. But they're optimistic that juco transfer running back James Gillum could provide some punch. Meanwhile, injuries forced Minnesota to use 11 different linemen for significant stretches last season, and eight of those guys return. However, there are no seniors in that group.
The lowdown on defense: Keep the name Ra'Shede Hageman in mind. A 6-foot-6, 300-pound junior from Minneapolis, he apparently has found his niche as an interior lineman after playing tight end and defensive end. He could emerge as a star. The Gophers like their speed at linebacker. What's more, they feel they have two excellent cornerbacks in seniors Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, who received a fifth season of eligibility after breaking his arm four games into last season. The safeties are inexperienced, but fast. Bottom line, Minnesota needs to take care of business in a relatively soft non-conference season (UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse) and then try to steal a few wins in conference play. That might put the Gophers in a bowl game for the first time since 2009.
What's new? There are 36 new players on the roster, according to Kill. "I think we're in a huge transition but a positive one," he said.
Commentary: This is an underdog team that's easy to root for. Kill is one of the most friendly and unassuming head coaches you'll find at any level -- at least that's my read on him. Many folks will remember Kill's epileptic seizure on the sideline last season. It was horrifying, just gut-wrenching to watch. He came back strong. Last week during Big Ten media days in Chicago, he was asked how he's feeling. "I'm doing fantastic," he said. "I appreciate you asking." We appreciate Kill being in the Big Ten.