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Kill, Gophers jump in feet first

Don’t throw away your new MarQueis Gray jersey if Saturday doesn’t go well.

More importantly, don’t try to tackle Joel Maturi the next time you see him. USC might beat visiting Minnesota by 35 points on Saturday in the season football opener for both teams. But as many things as Maturi has gotten wrong as Gophers athletic director — and it’s a long list — he got this one right.

Hiring Jerry Kill as his football coach this past offseason will likely go down as the best thing Maturi ever did at Minnesota.

Kill, who has taken one down-trodden program after another and made them winners, is the most serious, hard-nosed, well-designed and time-tested coach Minnesota has had in recent memory. He gives this beleaguered program a chance.

And when in the name of Tim Brewster is the last time you’ve been able to say that.

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That’s not to suggest that Minnesota, coming off a lousy 3-9 season, is going to go out and beat 25th-ranked USC. Not at stars-in-your-eyes L.A. Coliseum, and with a first-year starting quarterback, no less.

Yes, this Kill opener has the potential for ugliness. But don’t fret if it happens. Kill knows how to coach, the non-conference schedule gets decidedly easier after this, and this Gophers team actually has some decent pieces.

A five-win season — while playing in a rugged Big Ten Conference that has added vaunted Nebraska — would be an achievement in Year 1 under Kill. It would lay the groundwork toward hopefully heading in the direction of a Wisconsin, a formerly laughable program that’s now perennially among the Big Ten’s best.

For that to happen, it all starts with the 6-foot-4, 240-pound duel-threat Gray, the former four-star prize recruit out of Indianapolis’ Ben Davis High School.

Finally — finally — we get to see Gray unveiled. After his arrival on campus was delayed one year by a suspect ACT test, then he was mostly moved to receiver for two years with Brewster refusing to supplant scuffling Adam Weber as his starting quarterback, Gray gets his chance in 2011.

The junior has been one of the few players that Kill, refreshingly the opposite of Brewster in his reluctance to blow up his players, has gushed about.

Kill just wishes that Gray had been playing quarterback all along. Then he believes he’d really have something out of a guy who he calls clearly the team’s best athlete, with his rare combination of size, speed, power and elusiveness.

"If MarQueis had had a lot of quarterback reps his first two years, he would be scary right now," Kill said recently.

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Still, there are burning questions about Gray: Can he throw with accuracy, and can he read defenses? It’s a tough place to start, but we’ll get our first look at those things Saturday, in Los Angeles, against the mighty Trojans.

But this season is certainly not all on Gray. Offensively, almost as important as him being able to flourish, is the Minnesota offensive line being able to block. For four years under Brewster, the Gophers absolutely could not do that, a sacrilege in these parts considering all of the great offensive lines that Minnesota cranked out pre-Brewster. The Gophers, who lack a standout running back, need holes to run through, and they need to protect Gray when it’s time to pass. A couple of new guys should help make that happen, with star recruits Jimmy Gjere and Tommy Olson set to become major contributors up front.

On defense, Minnesota is desperate for a star to emerge. They likely already have an above-average linebacking crew, but the real need is along the defensive line. Minnesota was among the worst teams in college football at rushing the passer last season. Some of that was likely schemes, but a bigger part was a sheer lack of talent up front. Minnesota is pleased with a redshirt freshman defensive end out of Texas, Ben Perry. For this defense to have a chance, they need to still be excited about him come mid-November.

There are three bottom lines with this team: They are MarQueis Gray, and those lines — both of them.

But if things don’t go well Saturday in Los Angeles, don’t start second-guessing the coach. In hiring, Jerry Kill, they got the right guy. Just give him time.

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