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Updated: September 26th, 2013 12:58am
Gophers notes: Philip Nelson back at practice, but still questionable

Gophers notes: Philip Nelson back at practice, but still questionable

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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As the Minnesota Gophers get set to enter Big Ten play on Saturday against Iowa, the question of who their starting quarterback will be is still lingering.

In all likelihood, redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner will make his second career start, a follow-up to his four touchdown, Big Ten Freshman of the Week outburst in a victory last week against San Jose State.

However, sophomore Philip Nelson is inching closer to a return.

Nelson, who was sidelined with a hamstring strain when the Gophers sealed a 4-0 start, was back at practice on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Although the status of his right hamstring is still questionable, Nelson has been taking reps with Leidner and backup Chris Streveler.

"He wasn't full speed (Tuesday). He seemed to have a little more pop in step today," Kill said after practice Wednesday. "I could tell he pushed himself a little more today to see how it felt."

Kill plans to talk with Nelson and team trainers on Thursday to get a more concrete outlook on the sophomore starter's availability for Saturday's border rivalry match-up.

But with Nelson still not at a firm '100 percent,' the assumption is that the Gophers will play it safe again and keep Leidner situated at the forefront of the offense, at least for one more game.

If you're looking to Kill to stir up a quarterback debate, he won't do it. Kill has repeatedly backed Nelson, stating that he will regain his starting spot when he returns to full strength.

-- After a three-game absence due to an ankle injury, junior running back Donnell Kirkwood could make his return on Saturday. But Kill indicated again that the budding tailback duo of Rodrick Williams Jr. and David Cobb are likely to handle the majority of snaps, with Kirkwood on hand as a third option.

"I think he's ready to play," Kill said. We'll see how that works in there. We have the other two playing at a high level right now, so we're in a good situation there. We can be patient. If we need a spark or we run into a snag, he's definitely better than he was a week ago."

-- Boasting a defense that has held opponents to an average of nine points in the second half, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been satisfied with his group's production in four games.

He has not been pleased, however, with what he has viewed as momentary complacency when holding on to a lead.

"I still go back to that I think we relaxed in the second quarter (against San Jose State) when we got ahead 10-0," Claeys said. "When we came out in the second half and the game was on the line, they didn't score until we had 43 (points).

"It's happened about every week now. I don't know if it's because it's not a Big Ten team or a BCS team, so once you get a lead you think, 'Oh this is going to ride out.' But I was proud of our kids in how they bounced back."

-- Rarely talked about sophomore safety Antonio Johnson has quietly put together an impressive start to the season. Slotted in as a No. 2 option behind senior starter Brock Vereen, Johnson has 13 tackles and an interception on the year to go with a strong special teams resume.

"I think Antonio's playing at a high level on special teams, and I think he's a good secondary player, too," Kill said. "He's got great instincts. He's an aggressive physical kid and he's been a great recruit for us.

-- Defensive end Alex Keith continues to wear a heavy cast over his broken hand, but it shouldn't cause him to miss any more playing time. Kept out in Week 3 against Western Illinois, Keith was back in the D-line rotation, backing up Theiren Cockran last week.

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