Gophers spring position breakdown: Quarterbacks and running backs
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Jerry Kill's third spring at the helm of the Minnesota Gophers came to a close Saturday with the team's annual spring game.
Four months remain before the Gophers open the year against UNLV on Aug. 29 in a season that will hold ever-increasing expectations for Kill's squad.
For all the ups and downs Minnesota went through in 2012, six wins and an impressively aggressive showing in the program's first bowl appearance in three years was a worthy step forward. To have expected more than that would have been a misjudgment of the ground-zero state the program has been trying to shed since Kill took over in December of 2010.
But next season is when the call for better results will start building in ferocity. With a daunting schedule that includes five of the top six teams in the Big Ten teams in 2012 and void of the like of Purdue and Illinois, the Gophers would require at least two victories against a conference team it hasn't beaten since 2009 to get seven regular season wins.
Doing so would be another sign of forward progress. The pattern of inconsistency that has draped over the Gophers recently has to start being shed next year in order for Kill to maintain complete control of his attempted overhaul of the program.
There was no denying that this spring was the sharpest and most efficient of Kill's tenure. That was to be expected. However, it was reassuring to see obvious indications of movement in the right direction.
The Gophers are finally beginning to find a foundation of depth at several positions (see: the secondary, offensive and defensive lines). Although spring ball is always shrouded by unrestrained hype, there was a feeling throughout the 15-practice sessions that Kill's team had located the basis of a cohesive identity that has alluded them up to this point.
It was also clear this spring the Gophers are still filled with a bounty of problem areas. The offense as a whole was a disjointed mess for good portions of last season. Sophomore starting quarterback Philip Nelson, who will have to prove he belongs in charge of the offense, has a questionable wide receiving corps that is still a major concern. The departure of several upperclassmen left the Gophers with a group of linebackers dotted with inexperience.
The rebuilding process Kill has endlessly has taken hold in the fashion that he wanted it to. But until that starts translating to victories and a heightened sense of competition against upper-level opponents the largely skeptical "U" fan base won't fully buy in.
The excuses of the team's youth and talent-level will only become fewer and far between for Kill and the Gophers to lean back on. In 2013, Minnesota has to provide a firm dose of easy to see examples of raising the program to levels it hasn't been for a long while.
The following is the first in a series of position by position spring practice recaps, breaking down where the Gophers currently stand in each area with the final stretch of the offseason having just begun.
For better or worse, Philip Nelson spent his freshman season in MarQueis Gray's shadow. Even when Nelson moved into the starting quarterback slot seven games into the season as the hobbled Gray shifted to receiver, the true freshman labored to become the focal point and primary leader of a struggle-filled offense.
"The thing that held Philip back as a true freshman was that he just wasn't able to establish that with MarQueis being here," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "MarQueis was the alpha dog. He was the alpha male of that offense. That's tough for a freshman to come in and have that kind of stature."
But that is no longer the case. In the course of the winter offseason and throughout the spring, Nelson has begun to evoke an evolved mindset that recognizes he is critical to establishing a legitimate offensive identity in the season ahead. Nelson's tone has changed. The tentativeness and "overthinking" he showed at times both on the field and in front of the media last season has been replaced with an obvious grounded confidence. Nelson recognizes his role and has willingly taken large-scale control of the offense.
It's a reassuring sign for team that will enter next season with Nelson being its only quarterback with in-game experience -- Max Shortell's decision to transfer in December has left never used redshirt sophomore Dexter Foreman as the unit's elder statesman.
Regardless of the competition redshirt freshman and primary back-up Mitch Leidner imposes, the offense will be in Nelson's hands when the Gophers open the season against UNLV. The "U" offense needs continuity, a trait it has sorely been missing, and Nelson has to serve as its figurehead, at least in the short-term, if the group is to remedy the production issues that were crippling at times in Big Ten play. Six games in which the offense failed to score more than 14 points can't happen again if the Gophers expect to reasonably traverse a daunting conference schedule featuring only one of the three teams they have defeated in the last three seasons -- Iowa.
It's easy to make judgments about Nelson's apparent maturity or growth in the spring, but none of it matters until he can prove he can replicate his performance in the Gophers' bowl appearance against Texas Tech. The last throw of his freshman year - a forced pass to Derrick Engel, which was intercepted by a swarming Red Raiders safety and eventually converted into a last second game winning field goal - overshadowed a game in which he looked comfortable for the first time since tossing three touchdowns in his second start against Purdue. After completing only 18-of-46 of his passes for 120 yards, plus five interceptions, in a two-game stretch, Nelson responded with a controlled and balanced outing (7-of-18, 138 yards, two touchdowns) that was key in kick-starting the oft-stagnate offense en route to 31 points.
Nelson hasn't backtracked since receiving a jolt of forward momentum during his trip to Houston. The version of Nelson seen in spring practice has had an uptick in patience in picking his targets and a heightened awareness of the plays unfolding in front of him. He has still showed numerous flashes of rawness during the spring - misreads, wavering accuracy, etc - he has the lingering benefit of leeway, albeit it a quickly shortening leash, given his relatively limited resume.
Nelson's starting spot is his to lose. However, Leidner is a worthy second option and capable of usurping Nelson if it came to that. On the surface the big-bodied, 6-foot-4, 233-pound QB looks the part. Leidner, who came in last spring with Nelson, spent his redshirt year captaining the scout team offense. As a result, the learning curve in undertaking a considerable leap in practice reps has been smaller. Leidner has an edge on Nelson speed-wise and his deep carries a bit more power, but his decision-making and field vision are still in development.
"Mitch has had a ton of reps on the work team and that's actually helped him, because he can instinctively do a lot of things," coach Jerry Kill said. "He's a big, physical guy. He can really run fast. Right now he has to learn, if it's 'I'm going to throw the vertical route,' he can do that and he'll put it on the money, but if it's about reading a lot of different coverages he hasn't had that."
Early enrollee Chris Streveler went through many of the spring struggles Nelson and Leidner underwent a year ago. Streveler gradually wore off some the tightness and sense of being overwhelmed, but he remains a sizable distance from being ready to shift into his likely spot at No. 3 on the depth chart. The Crystal Lake, Ill. native has the body size (6-foot-2, 209-pounds) and speed to potentially play at receiver, but the Gophers have insisted that is not in consideration at the moment. Streveler's direct competition next season will be fellow freshman Donovahn Jones, a three-star prospect from Georgia who will join the team in June. In an ideal world, the Gophers would be able to redshirt both freshman, but with the options limited it could be difficult to do if injuries to Nelson or Leidner occur.
Current projected depth chart (Not including recruits joining in fall):
1. Philip Nelson (Sophomore, 6-2, 215 lbs.)
2. Mitch Leidner (RS freshman, 6-2, 233)
3. Chris Streveler (Freshman, 6-2, 209 )
4. Dexter Foreman (RS sophomore, 6-1, 220)
1. Donovahn Jones (6-3, 190, Stockbridge, Georgia)
2. Conor Rhoda (Walk on -- 6-2, 180, Eagan, Minn.)
3. Michael Conway (Walk on -- 6-5, 205, La Crescent, Minn.)
There were fewer questions surrounding the "U" tailbacks in the spring than this time last year. The Gophers entered fall camp with an extremely fluid situation at running back, with no clear-cut frontrunner for the top spot. Incoming junior college transfer James Gillum was being bestowed with a heaping amount of hype. But when Gillum started to trail off near the middle of training camp, then-redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood swooped in and took the primary role, which he would not yield for the rest of the year.
A history of hamstring troubles derailed Kirkwood in his first two years on campus. But he he stayed relatively healthy all season, and it aided in a 926-yard, six-touchdown season. With Kirkwood at the forefront and Gillum proving to largely be a bust, the Gophers pulled freshman Rodrick Williams Jr's redshirt in the sixth game of the season. Williams, a clearly raw, physical back with a similar make-up to Kirkwood, provided a worthy second option for unit without much else to pull from. Williams ended the year with 261 yards off 57 carries, used on 18% of the Gophers' combined rushing attempts (57 of 303) for the remainder of the season (Kirkwood accounted for 41% of the "U" attempts (125) and 46% of the total yards (532 of 1,138) in that span).
The "U" run game was still very much flawed in 2012. Inconsistencies establishing the run suffocated the offense. Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover's system relies heavily of a persistent run game to be successful. And with a freshman quarterback at the helm and a glaringly thin receiving corps, failure to find steady production on the ground often brought disastrous results. In four of their eight Big Ten games, the Gophers ran for a combined 102 yards or less, including the whopping four rushing yards they tallied in their regular season finale against Michigan State.
However, the Gophers' performance against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas Tech was a textbook example of how the coaching staff wants the offense to function - constantly attack with the run and sporadically mix in pass attempts downfield off play action. This was no better defined than on the Gophers' opening drive of the game, which was arguably the team's best drive of the season even though it ended with a just field goal. Kirkwood began with four straight runs of three, four, five and one yards. By the eighth play of the drive, Nelson dropped back on a play action roll out and located wide receiver Derrick Engel for a 27-yard gain. It was a surprisingly efficient drive for the struggling offense that took more than six minutes off the clock.
Using that mold, the "U" offense ran for 222 yards, threw for 146, and put up four touchdowns. The Gophers are going to face much more resistance to that formula when they return to playing against resilient Big Ten defenses, but perfecting a style of relentless running to set up play action was a primary focus in the spring. Numerous players and coaches preached how the offense was finally starting to form an identity. That comes from finding comfort in a formula that seems to be working.
"Our inability to really be consistent running the football kind of had the play action fall to the wayside," Limegrover said. "We turned into run it, hopefully. you can get some yards, try and spread them out, maybe run it again. That's really not who we wanted to be."
Now a year later, the Gophers went through the spring with the understanding they can build around Kirkwood - a compact, but wide-bodied powerback. What the Gophers have in Kirkwood is a guy who has willingly taken on a mature leadership role in a youthful group in need of a guiding voice. After spending the offseason watching video of veteran running backs like Marshal Faulk, there is a renewed edge to Kirkwood's running style with the installation of a sense of patience in letting the play developed that he has lacked.
"I'm really seeing a change in his growth as a football player," running backs coach Brian Anderson. "The thing I'm trying to get him to understand, you are a good football player, but what is going to push you over the top is your intelligence. I think that is where he is trying to separate himself, being more intelligent, not just on the field, but in the video room.
Kirkwood had his reps limited as the spring went on, allowing the rest of the running back corps to gather needed practice time. This led to the emergence of junior David Cobb. For two years, Cobb underachieved and was non-factor last season as he had only one carry. The 5-foot-11, 225-pound tailback, who Anderson dubbed the "best athlete" the Gophers have at running back, impressed with an aggressive showing all spring. In numerous talks with the coaching staff, his name kept being brought. The concern with has always been the mental side of the game and whether or not he has matured enough to handle a large upgrade in responsibilities.
Williams hasn't backtracked, but Cobb could be on his way to putting up a fight for quality share of carries next season. Cobb is more of an all-around back than Kirkwood and Williams, with arguably the best field vision in the group. It was slightly surprising to see Cobb take as many reps as he did in the spring. It's a bit of a bold prediction four months before the season, but it shouldn't be a major shock if Williams gets replaced in the No. 2 spot, whether it is Cobb or someone else. Incoming freshman Berkley Edwards, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound do-it-all back, is considered as a legitimate possibility to enter the mix at running back right away in the fall.
Gillum will likely fall to the back of the pack again. He injured his right knee midway through the spring and had to be shutdown, though Kill expects him to be available by fall camp. Redshirt junior Cole Banham, a fixture on the scout team last season, has been garnering unexpected praise and could settle in as a suitable backup.
Current projected depth chart (Not including recruits joining in fall):
1. Donnell Kirkwood (RS junior, 5-foot-10, 223 lbs.)
2. Rodrick Williams Jr. (Sophomore, 5-11, 235)
3. David Cobb (Junior, 5-11, 225)
4. Cole Banham (RS junior, 5-9, 188)
5. James Gillum (Senior, 5-11, 214)
6. JoJuan Harper (RS sophomore, 5-10, 201)
1. Berkley Edwards (5-9, 190, Novi, Mich.)