MINNEAPOLIS -- Nearly two full years in, the Minnesota Gophers' offense had reached a crossroads of sorts.
It was late November, end of the 2012 regular season. The Gophers had achieved a six-win season, successfully matching their win total from the last two seasons combined and were on their way to their first bowl game since 2009.
But the "U" offense was a mess. Injuries had compounded to become a major issue, especially on the offensive line. Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson had been handed the enormous task of captaining an offense midseason, while his predecessor, a senior and the most prominent face on the team shared the same huddle. Inconsistent and youthful options surrounding the raw quarterback hindered the unit's cohesiveness and led the Gophers to further deviate from its core offensive ideals.
After putting an enormous effort into pulling out that elusive sixth win in a grinding, run-dominated victory at Illinois, the offense flat lined in the course of the final two games of the season -- match-ups against Nebraska and Michigan State. Following a 38-14 drubbing in Lincoln, the offense could only get four yards rushing against the Spartans and couldn't find the endzone when the opportunities were there, despite a resilient showing from the defense,
Something had to change.
While the majority of the coaching staff had departed for the week on recruiting trips before the bowl prep began, coach Jerry Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover stayed behind. Stationed in the team's staff room, the pair spent several days lining the whiteboards with plans, debating what needed to be altered and how, watching back through film of their offenses at past stops at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois.
It all came back to the same question: "Who are we going to be moving forward?"
What that those discussions amounted to was the realization that they needed to re-institute the traits that had made their past offenses successful. Graced with 15 extra pre-bowl game practices, the Gophers set about reestablishing their offensive identity. By the time they met Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, the adjustments had begun to take hold.
The final result was a stinging last-minute 34-31 defeat. But that game served the critical purpose of invigorating the offense with new life and confidence in its direction. The offense had established a game plan founded heavily on an in your face downhill run game, which in turn opened a passing attack, infused with a bounty of motion, read options and play action.
It was undoubtedly the strongest and most competitive the offense had looked from end to end at any point in Kill's first two seasons.
With that sudden burst of success, the Gophers propelled themselves into spring ball with much clearer idea of where it wanted to go. Nelson firmly stepped into his role at the core of the offense, while the rest of the group showed a layer of cohesiveness that had been missing. Kill and Limegrover kept the Gophers' spring plans centered on perfecting their run game and movement in a play action-heavy offense.
"We go to Houston, fight our tail ends off, still make some mistakes, still have a lot of young kids playing, but at the same time getting out of there, that was the springboard," Limegrover said. "So when it got to be spring, with the work those kids were doing in the offseason, I think they would have revolted if we had approached it any differently than we did."
"We're going to pound the football ... That's the mentality that we want to develop. So with that in mind, that really allowed us to have a tight focus on what we wanted to accomplish coming out of spring. I think we've been able to do that, and that's pretty exciting, because there is a confidence level."
Some may scoff at or dismiss the Gophers' mid-level bowl appearance, and the numerous proclamations from the coaching staff about the benefits even in the wake of a loss. But without that performance and the "call to arms" meeting that kick-started it, the offense would be littered with many more concerns and question marks than it is now heading into fall camp.
The offense is still a heavy mix of potential, but with largely unproven pieces. While Nelson provides a certain level of stability behind center, he must prove that he can handle a full season at the helm.
The Gophers' budding offensive line is the strongest portion of the offense, but to live up to its potential the line's chemistry must continue to gel and injuries need to be held in check. If that happens, it could mean good things for the group of running backs headed up by Donnell Kirkwood. The receiving corps is highly questionable, with no one returning who had more than 375 yards last season. But the belief in-house is that the tweaks at quarterback and in the run game will help unlock three or four playmakers on the outside.
The season ahead is a crucial time for the longevity of this offense. With the defense already ahead in its development, the offense must make significant strides if the Gophers are to find that game to game competitiveness that they have been lacking.
The Gophers are well aware the transformation has to happen now.
"We don't have the excuse any more of being young," Limegrover said. "We don't have the excuse any more of not having depth. There are no more excuses. I told the coaches that ... We've got to start saying, 'We belong. This is how we're going to do it. This is the idea we're going to have.' And then just move forward with it and get as good as we can at it. That was what the spring was for and those guys have carried that forward into the summer for sure."
Without notable improvements offensively, the difficulties of meeting the ever-increasing year-by-year expectations that come with rebuilding a program could become immense. But if the changes made continue to stay in place and evolve, the offense and the Gophers as a whole are in a position to catch some opponents and critics of the program by surprise this season.
• Philip Nelson is the Gophers' starting quarterback but don't forget about Mitch Leidner. The redshirt freshman is being prepped to play a role in this year's offense, at least in a limited role, possibly in the range of 10 snaps per game in the early goings. Leidner, with 6-foot-4, 233-pound frame, is more effective on his feet than Nelson and could be brought in to spark the run game.
• There is a certain wait-and-see element to all true freshman, but watch for true freshman Berkley Edwards to gradually be factored into the rotation at running back at the onset of the season. The plan clearly is for him to not redshirt. But where he fits in with Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams Jr., David Cobb and the rest of the group remains to be seen.
"With Berkley, we'll create some things if he shows he can handle it to get him in there and get him the ball, because he'll bring a different dimension," Limegrover said.