From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!

Today I am previewing the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The Gophers had a rough first year under Head Coach Jerry Kill, going 3-9 including 2-6 in the Big-10. They lost three of their four out of conference games last season to USC, New Mexico and North Dakota State (though ND State went on to win the Div-II national championship) but if the Gophers are going to surprise and qualify for a bowl game in 2012 they are going to need to be perfect out of conference and try to win a couple games in conference again. This year they open with UNLV away, then get New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse at home. Their conference schedule is tough though, because after they play Iowa away and Northwestern at home they play Wisconsin away, Purdue, Michigan, at Illinois, at Nebraska and finish the season with Michigan State in TCF Bank Stadium. Beating Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State is going to be an especially tall order, so if Minnesota wants to go to a bowl game their best bet is to split the four games against Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois. If they are going to do that MarQueis Gray is going to have to throw better, more accurately and more efficiently and the running game is going to have to take as much pressure off of Gray as possible to move the offense up and down the field. The Gophers’ wide receivers are largely unproven, and the offensive line recently lost returning starting right tackle Jimmy Gjere for good as a result of concussions. There are a lot of question marks on the Gophers offense, but they have some underrated talent that might emerge in time for them to send this batch of seniors to a bowl game.

On defense the Gophers are looking to rebound from one of their worst performances in the last decade, as they gave up 31.7 points per game despite returning 8 starters on that side of the ball. This year they return 6, and hope to improve on the total yards allowed (403) and more specifically, rushing yards allowed (189 per game, 4.9 ypc average). If their defensive line play improves, which will be spear-headed by DL Wilhite and Ra’Shede Hageman in my opinion, their two stud linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper can make more plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. And an increased pass rush might help the Gophers improve on their pathetic four interceptions that they managed in 2011. If they are going to upset a couple Big-10 teams this year and go to a bowl game they are going to need some opportunistic turnovers and stops, and that starts with the defensive line and the front 7. If they can stop the bleeding versus the run, cause some turnovers and pressure passers better this unit will improve considerably even if it doesn’t all show up on a stat sheet. So without further adieu, here are the prospects to keep an eye on for 2012:

Gray played WR and QB the first two years he was on the Gophers, but he was the full-time quarterback when healthy as a junior. If he can stay healthy and progress he could give the Gophers a chance at a bowl game and earn himself a shot at the NFL. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

MarQueis Gray, QB- Gray is the face of the program and if the Gophers are going to get to a bowl game this season it is going to be up to him to raise his level of play and become more efficient. He was an athlete when he came to the Gophers but thanks to Adam Weber he was forced to get on the field as a receiver, and the 6’4”, 245 pounder had 48 receptions for 645 yards and 6 touchdowns his first two seasons here (42 receptions, 587 yards and 5 touchdowns as a sophomore). But after Weber graduated Head Coach Jerry Kill wanted to have their best player have the ball in his hands on every snap, so Gray was moved to quarterback. He is very much a work in progress as a QB, showing impressive arm strength and velocity along with plus size and athleticism. To get a shot at being a NFL quarterback he is going to need to improve his accuracy, his mechanics, his pocket poise and his overall efficiency. It’s a tall order, especially for a guy who spent two years at wide receiver, but many believe Gray is ready for a significant jump in year two of Kill’s offense and year two of being a starting quarterback. I believe he will account for more passing yards and touchdowns than he did last year (1,495 with 8 touchdowns and 8 interceptions) but even if he is more productive it doesn’t necessarily mean he will have a shot to be drafted as a quarterback. He has plenty of potential, but if quarterback doesn’t work out he will get a shot to play receiver in my opinion.

Gillum hasn’t taken a snap for the Gophers yet, but there are high expectations for him in the organization and I think he will give the Gophers a chance to reclaim some of their lost running game glory from the days of Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney.

James Gillum, RB*- Gillum is a junior college transfer who hasn’t even played a down of football for the Golden Gophers yet, but according to their current offensive coordinator Coach Kill and the staff he brought with to the Gophers have been recruiting Gillum for three years, but finally got him to leave junior college and come to the Gophers. He is supposedly a “program-changer” and boy could the Gophers use one of those, particularly on offense and at running back no less. Gillum is listed at 5’11”, 204 pounds but Coach Kill has proclaimed that he is “210 or 215, and a very strong 210 or 215.” Whether that is true or not, Gillum has the size, strength and speed to be an impact player on the Gophers offense, even if he isn’t an elite back by Big-10 standards. Just having a running back eclipse 1,000 yards and 8+ touchdowns would be a dramatic improvement, and based on the limited footage I have been able to find I believe Gillum is capable of that. He was very productive in junior college, totaling 2,339 yards and 25 touchdowns in two years, and is ready to make an immediate impact for the Gophers. He is consistently, if not constantly, lauded as a strong, mentally tough individual and really seems to “get it” based on what I have been seeing and reading about him. He was an early-enrollee so he was able to go through an entire offseason and spring with the team, and quickly ascended to the top of the running back depth chart and became the leader of the position group. Redshirt sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood was quoted as saying: “He’ll get on me, he’ll get on [David] Cobb, he’ll get on Devon [Wright] just as well as I get on anyone. He shows us that he is the oldest and he probably is – I’ll have to say – the most mature in some of the ways, but he kind of rubs off on all of us. When he gets serious, we’ll kind of get serious… He can take things other players can’t. Coach would get on one of the other players and then get on him. And the difference between them, you can tell how he took it versus how another player took it. He’s very mentally tough.” I love what I have been able to read about him, and I’m very excited to see how he does this season. He has the size, athleticism, strength, balance, shiftiness and has flashed some vision, so I have high hopes for him. I don’t know anything about his ability to catch out of the backfield or to pass block, but I know he can run the ball effectively. I have a feeling he’s going to surprise a lot of people that aren’t familiar with Minnesota Gophers football, and they could really use a lift in the running game.

Brandon Green, WR- Green is a 6th year senior and is the leading returning receiver on the team despite only catching 15 passes for 190 yards and one touchdown. This group of receivers is DYING for a playmaker or two to emerge, and Green may be one of the most likely receivers to step up. The 6’0”, 190 pound receiver had two receptions for 50 yards in the spring game and returns with 18 career starts. If Gray improves as a passer, and passes much more often than he runs (213 pass attempts and 199 rushing attempts in 2011) then Green could improve considerably on his numbers from a year ago. He flashed potential as a freshman and sophomore, totaling 41 receptions, 591 yards and two scores in those two years, but then he sustained a season ending injury in 2010 and wasn’t all the way healthy in 2011. He should be 100% for 2012 though, and that might mean being Gray’s go-to guy on offense.

Devin Crawford-Tufts is an Edina High School graduate, and I hear people that graduate from there are particularly eloquent and talented in whatever they choose to do.

Devin Crawford-Tufts, WR**- Crawford Tufts will be henceforth referred to as DCT because his name is so long. DCT went to the same high school that I did (though he is obviously younger than I am, being a true sophomore) but the 6’2”, 195 pounder got a little playing time as a true freshman, catching 8 passes for 158 yards and showing a knack for big plays, including a long reception of 61 yards. The Gophers desperately need playmakers at receiver, particularly ones that can make big plays vertically, and DCT is going to have an opportunity to step up and make those plays. He isn’t listed as a starter, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t improve on those numbers considerably and make some big plays downfield this season. After all, he is an Edina Hornet (Green and White ‘til I die).

Ed Olson, OT*- Olson is only a junior, but he has the potential to be a NFL player after he graduates. He is the longest tenured starter on the offensive line and returns with 18 career starts all at left tackle, and will likely play left tackle for the next two years for the Gophers. At 6’7”, 305 pounds he has NFL size, though he could stand to add some weight to his lower body. He has pretty good feet and long arms, plus he plays with an aggressive, nasty demeanor which I love. I am interested to see if his play is more consistent and I want to see him have more of an impact in the run game than I have seen thus far. As the Gophers’ current top lineman, if they are going to reestablish a running game like they used to have with Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney (that actually feels like two decades ago) they are going to need an improved push up front. For the Gophers, that starts with Olson.

DL Wilhite, DE- Wilhite is the elder statesmen of the defensive line, returning with 17 career starts. The 6’3”, 250 pound defensive end flashed potential last year with 16 tackles and 3 sacks, but he is more of a high-effort player than a dynamic sack artist. He has burst and speed, but he is relatively undersized and struggles once contact is initiated by the offensive lineman, which helps explain why he didn’t have any tackles for loss in the run game. He doesn’t have a great repertoire of pass rush moves at this point, and if he doesn’t beat the tackle with speed and he gets engaged he usually struggles to disengage and make the play. If he has gotten stronger and worked on his pass rush moves he could provide a much needed boost to the Gophers’ defense, but I’ll be a little surprised if he truly breaks out this year.

Ra’Shede Hageman, DT*- Hageman doesn’t have a career start to his name, but his size alone catches your eye. He is both the tallest and heaviest Gophers defensive lineman I see on the roster, measuring at 6’6” and tipping the scales at 300 pounds. He played in all 12 games last season and had 13 tackles, 1.5 TFL and 2 sacks, but I think he has the potential to exceed that easily as a junior even though it is his first year as a starter. The Gophers desperately need improved defensive line play, and I’m anxious to see if Hageman can provide it.

Keanon Cooper, OLB- Cooper is one of the leaders of the defense along with middle linebacker Mike Rallis, and he and Rallis had to help rally the team together after the tragic loss of Gary Tinsley, who died as a result of an enlarged heart. Tinsley was the Gophers second leading tackler last season, and led the team in tackles for loss, and as a tribute the team will wear “GT 51” patches on their jerseys for the 2012 season. Cooper happened to be Tinsley’s roommate and happened to be the man who found Tinsley’s body the morning after he died in his sleep. He has flashed some read and react skills, but I want to see more of him from that aspect. He is a former defensive back and as a result the 6’0”, 220 pound linebacker closes on the action quickly and is the team’s second leading tackler who returns only to Rallis, having accumulated 77 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 pass break-ups and 2 forced fumbles as a junior. He’s undersized for the position, but he’s one of the key cogs of the Gophers defense.

Mike Rallis is another Edina High School graduate playing for the Gophers, and I expect him to top 100 tackles and provide a stabilizing presence in the middle of the Gophers’ defense in 2012.

Mike Rallis, MLB- I never could have dreamed that any prospect preview I could have done would involve not one but TWO former Edina Hornets, but that day has come. Rallis was a running back and linebacker for Edina and I remember many instances of him breaking tackles, making big hits and ripping off big runs to help my former high school win as many games as it did while I went there. It’s hard to believe he is the starting middle linebacker for the Gophers now after walking on after graduating from Edina, but at the same time it isn’t. I’ve heard multiple people talk about his leadership capability, one even saying that even before he was an upper-classmen he was “the leader in the room” when the linebackers got together. He is certainly bigger now than he was in high school, as he is listed at 6’2”, 245 pounds and has the size to get a shot at the next level. He is the leading returning tackler on the Gophers, totaling 83 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 pass break-ups and a fumble recovery as a junior. It will be really fun to watch an Edina Hornet play on either side of the ball for the Gophers this upcoming fall, and I can’t wait to see Rallis break the 100 tackle mark this year.

Troy Stoudermire, CB- Stoudermire is a former wide receiver and he demonstrated those ball skills as he accounted for two of the four interceptions the Gophers had as an entire team last season. The 5’10”, 200 pound corner also added 24 tackles, 3 tackles for loss and 3 pass break-ups. He started his career with two consecutive seasons with over 1,000 kick return yards, totaled 789 as a junior and then only got a chance to return 8 kickoffs as a senior because his season was cut short by injury. He set a conference record in his first three seasons as a kick returner, and figures to add to that record as a senior. He may not be an elite corner, but his unique mix of talents both as a receiver and corner in addition to his knack for returning kicks will earn him looks from NFL talent evaluators.

Brock Vereen, FS*- Vereen is one of the most experienced defenders on the Gophers’ defense despite entering his junior season. He has 16 career starts and is the third leading returning tackler on the roster behind Rallis and Cooper. The 6’0”, 195 pound free safety had 67 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 7 pass deflections and 1 interception as a sophomore, and will look to improve on those numbers as a junior. That will have a lot to do with how the defensive line does, because if they can ramp up the pressure it will make things a lot easier on a secondary that returns only three of the four interceptions they had as an entire team last year. If there are any playmakers that can change that in 2012, it’s Stoudermire and Vereen.

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