Harbison, Maye among several 'U' freshmen projected to play in opener
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MINNEAPOLIS -- A shortage of depth at several skill positions, Gophers coach Jerry Kill says, will make it necessary for the team to field an array of true freshmen in its season opener Thursday at UNLV.
The Gophers played nine true freshmen during the 2011 season and they are expected to come close to matching that number again this season.
"We just don't have the depth," Kill said on Saturday. "If we had the depth we may do something different ... Shoot, I'd redshirt them all if you could. But right now, I think you saw in the spring we needed some playmakers."
Freshmen wide receivers Jamel Harbison and Andre McDonald have garnered the bulk of the local preseason media attention as both have been worked frequently with the first and second team offenses. Harbison, who will also factor in on special teams, appears to have a slight edge on McDonald, but both are likely to play.
Running back K.J. Maye began camp as a bigger unknown than Harbison and McDonald. However, four weeks later the considerably mobile 5-foot-10, 190-pound former single wing quarterback earned himself a spot in the four-man rotation at running back.
The Gophers have put an emphasis on a run-by-committee style, with newcomer James Gillum and Donnell Kirkwood set to front the tailback unit. Kill's announcement that he would be going with redshirt sophomore Devon Wright and Maye as the No. 3 and 4 options showed the Gophers' obvious desire to add more dynamic speed to the offense.
Wright and Maye can do more out on the perimeter than a power back like Kirkwood - a point Kirkwood willingly concedes.
"They bring speed and a little more athleticism," he said of Maye and Wright. "I know what type of running back I am, so I know how they differ from me and can be used more than me."
Labeled with the blank term "athlete" on the Gophers' initial 2012 roster, Maye has had his position distinction upgraded to running back/wide receiver on the latest edition. Apart from being a resource in the backfield, Maye provide the Gophers with another inside receiving option, similar to the role Marcus Jones filled for the first half of 2011.
On the defensive side, Kill said freshmen defensive backs Eric Murray, Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis will also travel with the team to UNLV and are expected to fit into the defensive rotation in some fashion.
Murray, like Maye, has been a slight surprise this preseason.
When Murray came to the Twin Cities for a prospect camp last year, he worked out at as a wide receiver. But the Gophers asked the Milwaukee native to come back a few weeks later and take some reps as a cornerback.
"That's kind of how we made that decision," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "We felt with the junior college kids that we had that we could roll that dice, take that chance and see what happens."
Murray's chances of playing right away are high as he is one of six cornerbacks at the Gophers' disposal, along with starters Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter and junior college transfers Martez Shabazz, Briean Boddy and Jeremy Baltazar.
• Senior wide receiver Brandon Green has endured periodic pain and swelling in his left knee throughout camp, but the injury hasn't caused him to miss much practice time. Green said the irritation in his knee -- he same one he had surgically repaired in 2010 --= arises only after running on it for extended periods. He has no concerns that it will hamper him at game time.
Kill hasn't been as easily convinced. He expressed a layer of concern at his press conference Saturday. Though Green is being allowed to practice fully, he will continue to be monitored as the week goes on.
• Brendan Beal has had to wait nearly four years longer than expected, but the redshirt junior linebacker is now four days from his collegiate debut. Having recovered from a pair of ACL injuries, Beal isn't letting a broken hand hold him back. He suffered the injury last week in practice and has worn a cast over the palm and wrist of his right hand.
Kill is still targeting Beal as his No. 2 option at middle linebacker behind senior Mike Rallis.
"I really feel good about the camp that Beal's had," Kill said. "He's had a really good camp. As an old ball coach you root for a guy that's been through so much. I'm looking forward to seeing him play."
• Sophomore David Cobb's exclusion from the projected rotation at running back was not because of injury, Kill said. Instead, he pointed to Cobb's developing grasp of blitz reads as the primary reason Wright and Maye won the final two spots over him.
• As expected, the Gophers will bring sophomore Max Shortell and true freshman Philip Nelson to Las Vegas to back-up starting quarterback MarQueis Gray. Kill announced Saturday plans to redshirt the team's other true freshman quarterback, Mitch Leidner. Nelson was slowed in the first week of fall camp by a hamstring strain, but has since, in Kill's words, had an "excellent camp."
• The Gophers equipment truck left for Las Vegas on Sunday. The rest of the team will follow on Wednesday afternoon.