Despite coming off a 6-7 season and a bowl game loss, Minnesota feels encouraged.
The Golden Gophers are hoping this preseason's optimism doesn't sour coming off their first bowl game in three seasons, a 34-31 loss in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas to Texas Tech.
"We're really, really excited (with) the direction we're going," said coach Jerry Kill, who is about to begin his third season with the Gophers after stints at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. "The kids took the momentum out of the bowl game, took it on to the offseason, did an outstanding job in the offseason getting bigger, stronger and faster."
A nonconference schedule featuring UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois and San Jose State should help ease them into the Big Ten season that starts Sept. 28 at home against Iowa.
But that all could depend on how the quarterback play progresses.
Philip Nelson played about half the season after having his redshirt tag removed.
With some experience at the helm, that beats some Big Ten quarterbacks as the position is one of mystery around much of the league.
Nelson played in seven games last season as a true freshman, completing only 49.3 percent of his passes with eight interceptions and eight touchdowns for just 124.7 passing yards per game. But winning games impressed Kill.
"He certainly played valuable time for us and did very well," Kill said. "It was a great growing process for him. It leads us in to this season where we're not trying to break somebody in."
If Nelson doesn't progress as planned, redshirt freshman and dual threat quarterback Mitch Leidner could step up. Kill calls him "a tremendous athlete."
"I compare our quarterback situation a little bit to what we had at Northern Illinois when I took over that program with Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch. We're kind of in that area (at Minnesota)," he said. "We feel good about our quarterback situation and we feel like that's going to be a strength down the road."
One question is with whom Nelson — or eventually maybe Leidner — will connect on the field.
The receiving corps doesn't have much depth, and junior Devin Crawford-Tufts ended his two-year career with the football team, opting to focus solely on track and field for the Gophers. He was fourth on the team in receiving yards last season.
The defense is expected to take a step forward as it did last season, despite losing five starters. Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen are standouts.
The bowl game experience started the improvement Minnesota hopes to see this season, Kill said.
"We came up a little short in the game," he said, "but we played more like we want to play — very physical and hard-nosed football."
Up next: Indiana
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