Minnesota has won more than seven games just three times since 1967, but third-year coach Jerry Kill is breathing life into the program. The Golden Gophers parlayed an easy non-conference schedule into a bowl appearance last season and have a navigable non-conference schedule -- and a roster getting incrementally better under Kill -- again this season.
Minnesota has had only four players drafted since 2006 (when Golden Gophers running back Laurence Maroney went in the first round), but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman seems likely to go early in the 2014 draft and there are some underclassmen worth watching, as well. The Golden Gophers are in the Legends Division -- the toughest of the league's two divisions -- but another bowl bid is a legitimate goal.
Top senior prospects
DT Ra'Shede Hageman: Hageman was a national recruit as a tight end out of high school in Minneapolis, and, after switching to the defensive line while redshirting as a freshman, he has made noticeable progress each season. He has added almost 60 pounds while at Minnesota and now stands at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds. He is stout against the run and also possesses some pass-rushing skills -- he was second on the team and seventh in the league with six sacks last season. A big senior season could propel him into the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
OT Ed Olson: Olson (6-7, 309) redshirted as a true freshman and is heading into his fourth season as the starter at left tackle. Olson could stand to add more bulk, but he can be a punishing run blocker and looks to have the ability to slide inside to guard if needed.
OG Zac Epping: Epping (6-2, 321), a squatty junior, is heading into his third season as a starter and is a solid run blocker. He was better known as a defensive lineman in high school and has kept his aggressiveness after being moved to the other side of the ball.
RB Donnell Kirkwood: Kirkwood (5-10, 223), a junior, lacks elite speed, but he is a punishing runner who rushed for 926 yards and six touchdowns last season. He had three 100-yard outings and proved to be a workhorse, with eight games of at least 16 carries and four with at least 22. His receiving ability is a mystery, as he has only seven receptions in his career.
CB Derrick Wells: Wells, a junior, is moving from safety to cornerback, the position he played in high school in Florida. While Wells weighed about 165 pounds when he signed with the Golden Gophers, he's now 6-0 and 206 pounds. He is tough against the run and has some coverage ability, too (he had two picks and 10 pass breakups last season).
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LB Damian Wilson: Wilson is a touted junior-college transfer who enrolled early, went through spring practice and is expected to start at middle linebacker on a defense that must get a lot better against the run. Wilson (6-2, 254), who began his career at FCS member Alcorn State before heading to junior college, is expected to provide a much-needed physical presence against the run. Wilson, who made 122 tackles for Jones County Junior College in Mississippi last season, has a 36-inch vertical.
Three must-see games of 2013
Oct. 5 at Michigan: A talented Wolverines team will be the first true test of the season for the Golden Gophers. You can bet Hageman has noticed that Michigan will have new starters at center and both guard spots. And Kirkwood probably has noticed that Michigan's defensive front seven is a bit iffy.
Oct 26 vs. Nebraska: Hageman will get to show his wares against what should be one of the Big Ten's top offensive lines. Nebraska has struggled to stop the run in each of the past three seasons, so Olson, Epping and Kirkwood could be in the spotlight.
Nov. 23 vs. Wisconsin: The battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe has gone Wisconsin's way 16 times in the past 18 seasons, including nine seasons in a row. This will be another chance for Hageman to show off against a big, physical offensive line.