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Dave Campbell / Associated Press, Published August 14 2013

Gophers hope to build off of last year's bowl berth

MINNEAPOLIS – Touting a strong finish to the previous season is a natural talking point, when applicable.

At Minnesota, momentum has been trumpeted all summer, despite a bowl game loss last year that left them with a 6-7 record, and only one victory after Halloween. This was still a sign of progress for a program languishing in the Big Ten’s bottom tier for a large part of the last half-century. The Gophers are determined to build off that despite being in the conference’s rugged Legends Division.

After back-to-back 3-9 finishes, the Gophers won all four of their nonconference contests in 2012, blew out Purdue and beat Illinois on the road to return to the postseason with a decent showing against Texas Tech. In coach Jerry Kill’s third year, though, another 2-6 record in Big Ten play won’t perpetuate any optimism, no matter how competitive they might be or how tough the opponents are.

“The next step is we need to keep climbing the mountain,” Kill said, declining to specify a tangible measure of success for Minnesota this season.

Here are some things to know about Minnesota this season:

Hageman is hungry

The best player Minnesota has might be senior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound former high school basketball star and converted tight end. He had six sacks last season, his first as a starter. With the frame and the athleticism to flourish into a legitimate NFL prospect, the soft-spoken Hageman has also grown into a leader for the Gophers.

“When you have a freak of nature like that who has the ability, who does make the plays like he does, guys are naturally going to follow him,” senior safety Brock Vereen said.

Nelson needs to improve

Philip Nelson started seven games as a freshman, but quarterback is one of many positions that must be settled this fall. Freshman Mitch Leidner is expected to be the backup, but rookie Chris Streveler is another promising prospect. Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have shown a willingness to substitute to keep the starter fresh or give the defense a different look, so even if Nelson thrives as a sophomore he probably won’t be the only one taking snaps.

Nelson completed only 49.3 percent of his passes last year for eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.

“You’ve got to be able to be accurate and make the right decisions and just be able to utilize the players around me and let them make some big plays,” Nelson said of his biggest lesson from last season. “Not every play needs to be a 50-yard bomb. You can dump one down and let some of the athletes take over.”

Receivers wanted

Those athletes Nelson would love to let take over include Andre McDonald, whose freshman year was washed out by injuries and off-the-field issues. Jamel Harbison, who ripped up his right knee in the season opener, is another candidate, along with freshman Drew Wolitarsky. Derrick Engel and Isaac Fruechte are the most experienced returners, and K.J. Maye is a versatile option who has also carried the ball and returned kickoffs.