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Updated: August 9th, 2012 9:04pm
Freshman Mitch Leidner impresses MarQueis Gray in first week of camp

Freshman Mitch Leidner impresses MarQueis Gray in first week of camp

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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Entering fall camp, much of the hype surrounding the Gophers' two freshmen quarterbacks had been targeted towards Philip Nelson, who was considered one of the highlights of coach Jerry Kill's 2012 recruiting class.

But Mitch Leidner has redirected some of that attention towards himself in the first week of practice. In many instances, Leidner has been composed and in-control under center, showing a grounded understanding of the Gophers' offensive scheme.

Though he is still subject to typical freshman mistakes -- he made a bad read and threw a baffling pass directly into the hands of cornerback Briean Boddy on Thursday -- his errors have been kept to a notably manageable level.

The former Lakeville South high school standout's strong showing has earned him a bump in reps, several of which have come with the second team offense. Leidner, like Nelson, joined the team in January, allowing him to get through some of the first-year jitters during the months prior to fall camp.

"In the film room when coach is asking about protections and what routes guys are doing, he's one of those guys that answers right away and he says it with confidence too," starting quarterback MarQueis Gray said. "That shows right there that he's done a lot of offseason work to get better this year."

"Now he's in practice working with the three groups and he's getting every single rep, so he's just getting better."

Meanwhile, Nelson's week hasn't been as smooth. Nelson has at times looked unsettled, rushing passes or misreading a receiver. During scrimmages and passing shell drills, Nelson has been picked more than any of his three counterparts. Some of his struggles may stem from the lingering effects of a hamstring pull he endured in the summer.

However, Nelson's arm strength has been on display in glimpses. He launched a pass 45-plus yards Thursday that was brought in cleanly by wide receiver Malcolm Moulton.

Sophomore Max Shortell is and likely will remain the Gophers' No. 2 option at quarterback behind Gray, but Leidner and Nelson are contending for the third spot. Kill has deflected questions about whether or not he intends to redshirt one or both of his freshmen -- a decision that will probably not be confirmed until at least halfway through the season.

Per team rules, freshmen are not allowed to talk with the media until after Game 1.

Putting the focus on punting

Special teams work was the primary focus in the Thursday's morning practice. The Gophers rotated through all four of their punters -- redshirt junior Dan Orseske, redshirt freshman Peter Mortell, newcomer Christian Eldred and senior David Schwerman.

The crisp, hour-and-a-half session stood out to Kill, who is known to put a large emphasis on special teams in practice.

It was obvious after Thursday that the four-man competition at punter is wide-open.

Orseske, a two-year starter, was in familiar form, sending a couple punts short or out of bounds before booting one more than 50 yards. The Gophers ranked 105th out of 120 NCAA FBS-level teams in net punting (34.24) in 2011, with Orseske averaging a sub-par 37 yards per punt average on 57 total attempts. But Orseske does have the experience edge over his counterparts and there remains some hope that he can translate his scattered glimmers of upper-tier talent in practice to game-time situations

Kill has declared it vital that the Gophers' see improvements from their punt team this season, leaving Orseske to be outright challenged for his starting role. Mortell doesn't have the pure leg strength of Orseske, but he has been fairly consistent with punts in the 40-45 yard range in practice. Schwerman has lacked playing time, but he is the punting group's lone senior.

Eldred is the wild card, having joined the team in the summer from his native country of Australia. With a background in Australian rules football, Eldred is gradually adjusting to kicking with an American football, which is softer and slightly smaller than the ball he is used to. Kill thinks Eldred's uniqueness could be an advantage.

"Christian can do a lot of different things and has been trained differently," Kill said. "He's left-footed, so you have to get used to that in protection, so that brings another element to working with the punt team."

Notes

• Gray, through seven practices, has had very few glaring mistakes. Apart from a spattering of overthrows, his accuracy has been in check and his command of the offense is markedly increased from a year ago.

"He's been very sharp," Kill said. "I think we're catching the ball better, but he's been on target most of the time."

• Sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts, a projected starter at wide receiver, strained his right hamstring in practice Wednesday and was in an orange, non-contact jersey Thursday. Sidelined in the morning, senior receiver Brandon Green returned to the field for the afternoon session but was wearing a large brace over his left knee.

• Starting center Zach Mottla has been solid in all his reps with the first team. It's the Mottla's back-ups who have had issues. Redshirt freshmen Jon Christenson has repeatedly botched snaps, much to the chagrin of offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover. Christenson fumbled a snap Thursday, which defensive end D.L. Wilhite scooped up and ran into the endzone before dunking the ball over the goalpost. Moved from guard to center, true freshman Isaac Hayes has also had a couple miscues.

"Isaac is learning how to play center, which is one of the most difficult things you have to do. He could go over there and play guard and play excellent, but we've asked him for the team's stake to learn how to play center. That's a growing process."

• Wide receiver Cameron Wilson, who replaced tight end Kendall Gregory-McGhee on the Gophers' 105-man camp roster on Wednesday, practiced in pads for the first time Thursday afternoon. Wilson had been limited to non-contact drills due to an NCAA-mandated rule requiring roster additions to wait two practices before being cleared to participate in pads.

• Friday's scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium (10:25 a.m.) is the final practice of camp opened to the public.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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