The Gophers return all 10 offensive linemen from their two-deep depth chart at the Meineke Car Care Bowl, including eight players who notched at least four starts last year.
"The offensive line is definitely a strength," Gopher Illustrated writer Matt O'Connell said. "They have everybody back from last year. They have some really talented young guys. Because of all the injuries they went through last year, they were able to get a lot of playing experience for a lot of different players. That should be looked at as a strength."
Fifth-year senior left tackle Ed Olson has started 27 games for the Gophers at that position, and he will be the anchor of the offensive line in 2013. He is recovering from ankle surgery and won't be available for spring, but he will be more than ready to step in by August.
His brother, junior left guard Tommy Olson, had injury problems of his own last year, missing six games in the middle of the year before returning for the final three. He'll be good to go.
Then there is redshirt junior center Zac Epping, who started seven games at center, four at left guard and two at right guard last year; redshirt junior right guard Caleb Bak who stepped up to started the last 11 games at that position last year; and right tackle Michael Campion who missed the injury bug and started all 13 games there.
With a veteran offensive line as a base, Minnesota should be able to build up its running game, O'Connell believes.
"You'll see a more consistent running game," he said. "That's the one thing they have lacked. Under Glenn Mason, the running game was the hallmark. That was what they hung their hat one, but it has really fallen off under Tim Brewster and the first two years under Kill. If you watched Minnesota in the bowl game, they back to some more power runs. They got back to using different formations, some they they've never used from what I can remember. Some three-running back formations, stuff like that.
"Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover really want to make the running game a big part of what the offense does. You'll see them put more of an emphasis on that and hopefully be more successful with it now that they have some guys who can open up some holes."
Last year, the Gophers ranked 68th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 151.9 yards per game. They averaged just 2.8 yards per attempt, as well, which ranked No. 90 nationally.
Running back Donnell Kirkwood will be a junior. He ranked eighth among Big Ten running backs in yards per game, averaging 71.2.
For the year, he had 218 carries for 925 yards and six touchdowns.
Offensive Areas To Improve
Who is going to catch passes for the Gophers?
Last year, wide receiver A.J. Barker led the team with 30 catches for 577 and seven touchdowns. And that was just in the first eight games - Barker left the team midway through the season, and no one has stepped up to fill the void.
No one else caught more than 19 passes year. And other key targets like MarQueis Gray (12 catches for 121 yards) and tight end John Rabe (14 catches for 143 yards) have graduated.
Minnesota is even having problems with potential game-breakers. Sophomore Andre McDonald, who showed promise as a true freshman while catching 10 passes for 121 yards, is not on the spring roster due to personal issues and may or may not be back.
"There is a lot of room for improvement and for guys to step up, O'Connell said. "There is no one who can be counted on as a for-sure got-to guy. It's really a tossup. They haven't really had anyone emerge as a No. 1 guy."
But the passing game should receive a boost from sophomore quarterback Phillip Nelson, now in his second year as a starter.
Last year, Nelson was great at times and struggled in others - something to be expected from a true freshman starter.
He finished the year 75-of-152 passing with 873 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.
"I think he will be more consistent next year," O'Connell said. "Now that he sees things a little better, I think he has a chance to show what he can really do. He is an accurate passer, and he can make all the reads and throws. And he is a mobile guy. All those things combined with a running game that should be better and an offensive line that should give him some more time, I think Minnesota can expect him to take a pretty big step forward.
"And he has had some time to develop a rapport with some of these receivers. I don't think he is ready, necessarily, to be a star, but I don't think this offense will call for him to be a star. He needs to be a guy who can make good reads and good decisions, turn around and hand the ball off and make some plays when he is called on."
The Gophers are losing some big pieces from last year's surprisingly successful season, but they is definitely a solid base returning from which the defense can be built back up.
Three of four starters along the defensive line are back: junior defensive end Michael Amaefula, redshirt junior defensive tackle Cam Botticelli and fifth-year nose tackle Ra'Shede Hageman.
"I think they will be strong up the middle," O'Connell said. "Ra'Shede Hageman has the talent to be one of the top defensive tackles in the conference, but he is not always motivated and does not always play that way. But when he is motivated, he has as much talent as anybody. That will be pretty strong."
There is also experience on the back end: junior safety Derrick Wells notched 11 starts last year, and junior safety Cedric Thompson tallied eight. Backup Brock Vereen was also a key contributor.
"The safeties should be the same," O'Connell said. "Derrick Wells is back. Cedric Thompson and Brock Vereen are also back. They all played pretty well last year, especially considering Wells and Thompson were sophomores who played a little bit as freshmen but not much. Vereen is a guy who played corner his whole career until last year."
Wells was third on the team in tackles last year (74). He also intercepted two passes and defended 12 others.
Defensive Areas To Watch
That leaves linebacker and cornerback, where there are significant losses from a year ago. Two of three linebacker spots and bother cornerback spots must be replaced.
Returning is outside linebacker Aaron Hill, now a fifth-year senior. Last year, he notched 74 tackles and two interceptions.
"He was probably their best linebacker last year, but I don't know if that means a whole lot, because the linebackers were definitely a weakness," O'Connell said.
The Gophers must replace middle linebacker Mike Ralis and outside linebacker Keanon Cooper, who combined to tally 149 total stops.
Incoming JUCO transfer Damien Wilson is a viable candidate for the middle linebacker spot, according to O'Connell. Wilson was honorable mention NJCAA All-American last year after tallying 122 tackles for Jones County (Miss.) Junior College.
"But who steps up at the other outside spot? Early money would likely be on James Manual," O'Connell said. "He played some last year and is athletically gifted. He was new to the position - he played safety before. He had moments where he looked really good, but he is going to need to prove he can be a full-time linebacker."
At cornerback, the Gophers are replacing Troy Stoudemire and Michael Carter. With them at the helm, Minnesota ranked 12th nationally in passing defense, surrendering just 186.6 yards per game.
Senior Martez Shabazz will get the chance to earn the star. If needed, either Vereen or Wells could switch over from safety to take the other cornerback spot - but that is not ideal. The Gophers are hoping someone will step up.
"I think they are going to take another step forward," O'Connell said. "The offense, despite the deficiencies at wide receiver, should improve. Nelson should be better.
"Defensively, they have some really good athletes - they just haven't played a lot. I think this is a team that should be looking at a .500 record in the conference, and they should go undefeated in the nonconference. So you're looking at an eight-win team.
"Realistically, a seven- to nine-win team, if everything breaks right. I think .500 in the conference and undefeated in the nonconference is definitely a realistic expectation for Minnesota this year."