Depth chart for Gophers' opener at UNLV slowly coming into focus
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MINNEAPOLIS -- Sin City is beckoning.
The Gophers have fully delved into game planning as they are less than a week out from their Aug. 30 season opener against UNLV in Las Vegas.
Though peppered for the last few days for details, coach Jerry Kill has been hesitant to reveal some of the specifics of his team's initial depth chart.
With the opener hitting near mid-week, Saturday is being treated as the start to the team's typical game week routine. Players were given Friday off to allow the coaching staff time to discuss and finalize what the lineup will look like next week.
The Gophers are expected to release a depth chart at some point this weekend, but as was seen in Kill's first season in the Twin Cities it is highly subject to changes.
The roster questions heading into Thursday's game revolve more around position rotations and backend depth than specific starters. It's obvious players like quarterback MarQuies Gray, left tackle Ed Olson and cornerback Troy Stoudermire will get starting nods. But it is less known how personnel groupings will look like overall as the game wears on.
Game planning for UNLV has come in sporadic doses in the last week, though portions of recent practices have been spent rotating through several players similar to the majority of camp.
"We're still repping a lot of kids and taking the full speed reps against our offense about 30 minutes each day. They are still being evaluated," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "When they come back Saturday we'll try to have everything situated."
Jones could be a factor again on kick returns
When camp began three weeks ago, sophomore receiver Marcus Jones was uncertain about what his role would be, if at all, on special teams.
Jones suffered a torn ACL nine games into what was already a pleasing freshman season.
Not only were the Gophers stripped of a strong inside receiving option, but they also lost their new go-to kick returner, who was filling in after Stoudermire went down in Week 4. Jones brought back 13 kicks for 370 yards in 2011, including one taken 92-yards into the end zone at Purdue.
While Jones' rehab progressed at an astonishing rate and he has been deemed healthy since spring, there were still in-house concerns about risking putting him back on return duties right away.
But as practice has progressed, those worries have appeared short-lived. Jones has been narrowed down as one of several options on special teams returns
"Surprisingly, they threw me right in there," Jones said. "We're still working on a few things in the kick return game, perfecting some things, making changes. Things keep adjusting, but it will be good whether I'm back there or not."
Stoudermire, who is back after being granted a medical hardship waiver for the 2011 season, remains the team's targeted No. 1 option on both kick and punt returns. Already the Big Ten's all-time leader in kick return yards, he stands 416 yards from breaking the NCAA record (3,517).
Stoudermire's return has put the situation in perspective for Jones.
"You get anxious to get back into things, but you have to understand that we have a guy that can get the job done," Jones said. "Troy is fully capable of getting the job done, better than I am at times, so it doesn't bother me if I'm not back there. But I'm ready."
And Jones should get plenty of chances. He won't be alone. Redshirt sophomore running back Devon Wright, junior redshirt receiver A.J. Barker and freshmen K.J. Maye and Jamel Harbison have all taken reps throughout camp.
Punting spot up for grabs
A starter has yet to emerge from the four-man scrum at punter.
At least that's what Kill is saying.
"I'll have to answer that question here in a while, but I don't think there is a frontrunner," Kill said. "I think it goes back and forth."
Redshirt junior Dan Orseske has been the Gophers starter for the past two struggle-filled seasons. In that span, the Gophers have ranked at (120th in 2010, 30.9 yds.) or near the bottom (105th in 2011, 34.24 yds.) of the NCAA in net punting average
Orseske's spot is very much in jeopardy. He has been competition with Pete Mortell, senior David Schwerman and Australian newcomer Christian Eldred.
Kill referenced Mortell positively numerous times in the spring and the redshirt freshman has continued to be the likely choice as the successor to the role.
However, Kill said he planned on running all four punters through several more simulated game-time scenarios in the next few days before reaching a decision.
"We probably won't name who we will have punting until we absolutely have to," he said.
• Since his arrival at the "U," labeling his squad as a "young team" has been a weathered term for Kill. But he has given it even more play this season.
"This is actually a more youthful, younger football team than we had a year ago, by far," Kill said Thursday. "Maybe the youngest team I've coached since my second year at Southern Illinois."
• To this point, the Gophers have made it through August fairly injury free. As of Thursday, no major injuries were known. The majority of the team's health setbacks have been minor strains and sprains, primarily within the wide receiver corps. Brandon Green, Devin Crawford-Tufts and Victor Keise were among the receivers who missed practice periodically during camp.
• De La Salle high school product A.J. Barker, Kill contends, is a name onlookers should remember entering the season. The redshirt junior receiver's impact has been minimal outside of practices in the last two years, appearing in only six games. But Kill says that could change.
"Barker is another guy who people have kind of forgotten about, but he has had a very good camp, catching punts, playing receiver," Kill remarked unprompted. "He's done a lot of good things. He's kind of emerged. He's a older kid and has stepped up."