Max Shortell leads only scoring drive in Gophers spring game
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Scoring was a rarity at the Gophers' spring game on Saturday. Kicker Chris Hawthorne's 21-yard field goal for the Maroon squad stood as the only points tallied on a rainy, overcast afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium.
But the final score was meaningless for coach Jerry Kill.
Instead, he was more relived to have the ability to hold an actual game. Unlike a year ago, when injuries and a simple lack of depth prevented Kill from fielding two complete split squads in his first spring with the team, the Gophers divvied up the roster and unleashed players for a glorified full scrimmage.
As Saturday marked the conclusion of spring practice, Kill insists the Gophers have progressed beyond the disheveled program he inherited into one that is beginning to see a sense of order and forward motion instilled.
"We got to play everybody and we got a chance to see everybody on the field, and we got out of it healthy," Kill said of the game. "We've had a good spring. I think our kids have worked very hard and I think we found out a lot about a lot of kids throughout the spring."
An announced crowd of 3,512 endured the sub-par weather to garner their first glimpse at a Gophers squad trying to rebuild and soften the sting from back-to-back three win seasons. While several key starters were sidelined due to injury, the coaching staff was still able to continually rotate players in-and-out, with incoming freshmen quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner each getting a chance to gain control of the offense.
The absence of a completed pass from either Nelson or Leidner -- they were a combined 0-for-8 -- didn't damper Kill's impressions of the duo.
"We've been pleased with their progress. I'll tell you, it's good that they came in (early) as quarterbacks," Kill said. "As freshman coming in, they've got the spring out of the way. They've learned what to do, so when they come back in the fall they'll be like a sophomore and that is critical at that position."
Starting quarterback MarQueis Gray and backup Max Shortell split time on the Maroon squad, with each taking a half. Shortell grabbed the spotlight on offense by leading the only scoring drive of the game and completed a 33-yard pass to senior receiver Brandon Green. Shortell finished with 68 passing yards -- six more than Gray -- and scrambled for another 30.
Kill and his staff reiterated throughout the spring that the starting job under center is Gray's to lose, but that isn't eliminating a steady competition for playing time. Shortell for one has found a comfort with the offense that was lacking during his up-and-down freshman season.
"It's a whole new level now of how I understand (this offense)," Shortell said. "I'm able to talk with different kids about routes and different things they can do, because I understand it more now."
The lack of more than only a scattered number of big plays on Saturday can be credited heavily to the growth of the Gophers defense, which ranked 10th in the Big Ten last season in yards allowed (403.1 per game). Coordinator Tracy Claeys and Kill have both used the word "depth" when describing the defense -- an attribute that was severely lacking a year ago.
The most notable improvements have come in the secondary, where the Gophers have developed an increased level of speed and athleticism. Senior cornerback Troy Stoudermire, who returns after being granted a fifth year of eligibility, and fellow senior Michael Carter add experience to the group, while sophomores Derrick Wells and Cedric Thompson are among the underclassmen that could have a sizeable impact come fall.
"Between the development of the ones that were here and the ones that we've added, we're actually going to have a little depth there. So I feel really good about that," Claeys said.
Thompson topped the spring game defensive chart with eight tackles, while Wells and junior linebacker James Manuel followed behind with five.
"We've made a big move from last year," Wells said when discussing the defense. "I feel we've learned a lot and got a lot done this spring."
Solid proof of the progress the Gophers have made won't be quantified until the season gets underway on Aug. 30 against UNLV. However, in the meantime, the team enters the summer fostering a grounded belief that the program is tracking upwards.
"There is a level of good competitiveness, which something I didn't see too much when I first came to the "U," running back Donnell Kirkwood said. "I've seen players that want to compete and players that want to have fun."
• As expected, the Gophers were highly cautious to avoid any long-term injuries, holding out several players that have been nursing lingering ailments. Linebackers Mike Rallis (hamstring), Brendan Beal (knee) and Keanon Cooper (wrist), running backs David Cobb (knee) and Devon Wright (hamstring), defensive end D.L. Wilhite (undisclosed), wide receiver Marcus Jones (knee) and safety Brock Vereen (knee) all were all kept on the sidelines Saturday. None of the injuries are projected to be a factor in the fall.
• Prior to the game, the Gophers showed a video memorializing the life of linebacker Gary Tinsley, who passed away suddenly two weeks ago at age 22. The team is expected to further honor Tinsley in the upcoming season, but no official announcement or arrangements have been made.
• Former "U" standout and current Denver Broncos receiver Eric Decker was in attendance on Saturday.