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Updated: August 7th, 2013 12:38am
Gophers fall camp Day 5: Jamel Harbison working back into WR rotation

Gophers fall camp Day 5: Jamel Harbison working back into WR rotation

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- As a freshman last season, Jamel Harbison was being primed for the opportunity to be a critical piece of the Minnesota Gophers' wide receiver unit.

But his debut was less than 30 minutes old when those plans had to be shelved momentarily. Harbison had touched the ball only once in Gophers' season opener against UNLV before a wrong step resulted in a tear in his right ACL.

Almost 12 months later, Harbison is back, healthy once again and attempting find a role in a "U" receiving corps that is in need of a revitalized identity. Through a grueling rehab process, which extended beyond the projected six-to-eight month timetable, he gained a sharpened perspective and improved approach that wasn't there in his first year.

"I feel way better than I did before the injury," Harbison said. "The knee is stronger. I feel healthier. Of course I know the playbook better now. Everything is getting better on the field now after the injury ... I'm more about reading defenses, running routes based off the defense."

Harbison, who took a medical redshirt following the injury, participated in spring practice, but his knee was still a hindrance and kept him from going full-tilt.

That hasn't been an issue for him in the first five practices of fall camp, as he has worked his way into reps with the first and second team offenses. Where Harbison fits in the rotation at receiver now, and whether or not he can truly harness his pre-injury potential has yet to be seen.

But he will have his chances in a group that is still looking for a defined set of players to emerge as reliable playmakers -- a feature that has been glaringly lacking in the Gophers' pass game the last two seasons.

The Gophers have options, more than they did a year ago, but the question is can those players provide the step forward the "U" offense requires from them?

Redshirt senior Derrick Engel and redshirt junior Isaac Fruechte are the crew's most seasoned, which in reality is only 12 games and a combined 631 yards and three touchdowns.

Both are being expected to play key roles in the year ahead, but the Gophers will need more than that. Promising sophomore Andre McDonald is getting another chance after a rash of off-field problems, while K.J. Maye and newcomers Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky are also competing with Harbison for playing time.

Harbison is ready for competition though. And while his adjustment back into the offense is still ongoing and not without its setbacks, he has shed some of the tentativeness that surrounded him in his first fall camp.

"He's definitely becoming more confident," Engel said. "Last year his head was kind of spinning a lot in the fall, because they threw him out there on the first team right away. It's a lot to learn. He was just playing out there. He'd make a lot of mistakes, but he made a lot of good plays. Now he knows where he's supposed to be and he can be out there and not think so much and just play."

Notes from Day 5 of Gophers fall camp

• Tuesday was the Gophers' first practice in full pads, and like coach Jerry Kill promised a day ago, he said the layout of practice didn't change much from the first four days: "We've got a lot of work to do, but the intensity level and the pace have been good."

• Redshirt junior Donnell Kirkwood on what freshman Berkley Edwards brings to the "U" running backs unit: "Speed. And of lot it ... He's very quick. He's agile. He's crisp with his cuts. He brings a different element into the game."

Edwards is being targeted to join the rotation at running back right away. The bulk of his reps have been coming with the second team offense, with him likely positioned as the Gophers' No. 4 option behind Kirkwood, sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr. and junior David Cobb.

• Redshirt freshman Maxx Williams has been the subject to increasing hype from the coaching staff since his arrival a year ago. With the Gophers offense placing more of an emphasis on its tight ends, even Williams' teammates are bringing him up as some one to keep an eye on.

"I think Maxx Williams is really going to surprise a lot of people," junior tight end Drew Goodger said of the 6-foot-4, 254-pound Waconia native.

"He's kind of sneaky when it comes to blocking as well as getting out on routes. I think people kind of underestimate his speed and he's pretty shifty, pretty versatile. He's a good match-up against linebackers."

• Even with recently minted cornerback Marcus Jones coming off a pair of ACL injuries, Kill said the junior is being looked at again as a possibility on punt and kick returns. Jones returned 17 kicks for 445 yards in his first two injury-shortened seasons.

It still seems likely the Gophers will consider other options as well. Part of the reasoning behind Jones' shift from receiver to cornerback was to lessen his chance at injury. But it could be argued that Jones has a better chance at seeing playing time on special teams than he does at corner, where the Gophers are notably deep.

• Speaking of the return game, Kill mentioned that it would take a "real special freshman" for one of the team's newcomers to earn a spot returning kicks or punts. Kill is looking for his return man to have some experience.

While former cornerback Troy Stoudermire handled the bulk of return duties last season, sophomore receiver K.J. Maye was factored in later in the season, fielding eight kicks for 178 yards (22.2 ypr).

"We dropped a kickoff last year and it cost us the game. We dropped a punt or two. I think the reliability is more important than anything," Kill said. "We've got a couple of older kids who have been under the gun ... We've got some time to figure that out."

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