Familiarity leads to smooth start in Gophers' first preseason practice
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MINNEAPOLIS -- The air of uncertainty and unfamiliarity that clouded practices for the better part of coach Jerry Kill's first season on campus was nowhere to be found on Saturday as the Gophers football team underwent its first practice of fall camp.
Screams from the coaching staff, imploring players to get into the right positions were held to a minimum. Instead, players moved from drill to drill with ease, apart from a few wide-eyed true freshmen A level of continuity, a trait absent a year ago, served as an anchor for the Gophers in their initial efforts in a month that will be filled with preseason preparations.
"Those kids knew what our tempo needed to be, so we could spend less time harping on them about that and more time on the finer things," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "That's when you know that you're climbing that ladder as a team to respectability."
The Gophers still have a ways to go if they want to dig themselves out of the Big Ten's cellar and into the realm of respectability. For a program with six wins to its name in two seasons, it will take more than a renewed feeling of comfort to up their victory total. But after what Kill described as a "strong off-season", the Gophers are confident they are tracking in the right direction.
Close to 150 fans crowded along the sideline of the Gophers practice field Saturday, taking in the first of eight practices open to the public in the next week.
Much of the focus in the first two weeks of camp will be placed on incorporating the Gophers influx of newcomers. Kill was rarely with the first and second teams. Instead, he spent Saturday capitalizing on his first opportunity to work with his 24 true freshmen.
"We've got a lot of teaching to do," Kill said. "We've got a lot of young players. We've got a lot of kids that are learning what to do. We're working three groups and we have every coach we got doing something. We were focus down here on some of the younger kids and I thought they did a nice job."
Limegrover slims down
The biggest off-season transformation didn't come from any player on the Gophers' 105-man camp roster.
At first glance, Limegrover -- the team's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach -- was almost unrecognizable, showing off a shaved head and a dramatically slimmed down frame.
Limegrover, who has battled with weight issues since his playing days as an offensive lineman at the University of Chicago, has shed a remarkable 118 pounds in the months following the end of the 2011 season.
At times last year, Limegrover said he found himself lacking the same energy that he was asking from his players and struggling to keep up to the daily rigors of helping jumpstart a program.
Finally, he came to a realization that something had to change.
"It was just the time," Limegrover said. "I think everybody knows, from a football standpoint we want to improve and do better and I felt like that was going to be my contribution, was to make sure I was ready to go."
Under the guidance of team doctors and strength and conditioning coach Eric Klien, Limegrover stuck to a gradual plan to cut out caffeine and carbohydrates from his diet, paired with improved workout habits.
"I probably had 10 times the energy today than I did at any point last season. I'm excited. I get up and I'm excited about going to practice. It's been a win-win all the way around."
Limegrover is now down to 273 pounds. He isn't finished though. His end goal is to get to level out at a healthy 235 pounds.
Carter, Green solid on Day 1
Broad, unfounded assessments have to be avoided when discussing the first week of fall camp, but there were a couple pleasing signs from practice No. 1.
Michael Carter, who is being targeted as a starter at cornerback, played sharp during seven-on-seven and shell drills. Back-up quarterback Max Shortell, in the midst of a rocky first day, had a pair of passes picked off by Carter. Despite the absence of top-end speed, the senior cornernback was able to stick with the opposing receivers, getting beat off the snap only once or twice.
Known mainly for his inconsistency and under-performing tendencies in his first three seasons, Carter is getting a chance to foster a new reputation within a secondary in need of senior leadership. Carter will have to fend off transfer and top challenger Martez Shabazz throughout camp to ensure a starting spot opposite fellow senior cornerback Troy Stoudermire.
Senior Brandon Green recorded the offensive highlight of the morning session as he hauled in a 35-yard pass in mid-dive from starting quarterback MarQueis Gray, while closely flanked by Carter and safety Derrick Wells. Like Carter, Green's perceived potential has yet to be realized, largely a result of a knee injury he suffered in 2010. In a receiving corps short on veteran options, getting a steady contribution from Green has become a near necessity.
• James Gillum, the frontrunner for the No. 1 spot at running back, tweaked his right ankle after getting ensnared by a defender on a run up the middle and limped to the trainers' table. He didn't return to practice, but was moving fine on the sideline. Afterward, Gillum assured that it was nothing to worry about. After all, it is only practice one out of 27 in the four weeks leading up to the Gophers' season opener on Aug. 30 at UNLV.
• Senior linebacker Keanon Cooper's club-like cast, which he wore over his right wrist for the majority of last season, is gone. Only a small wrist guard remains in its place, meant to serve only as a precaution. Ligament damage in his right wrist haunted Cooper in 2011, though the starting outside linebacker didn't miss a game. Surgery in February kept Cooper out of spring practice. But he is back and finally healthy.
"I feel like I haven't played up to my full potential because of injuries," Cooper said. "Playing against the caliber lineman we play against every year you have to be able to use your hands. It was just hard for me to do. It was frustrating. The fact that I'm healthy now I feel real good about it. I'm excited."