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Updated: April 17th, 2012 11:01pm
John Rabe becoming a common target for Gophers QB MarQueis Gray

John Rabe becoming a common target for Gophers QB MarQueis Gray

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray has found a common target downfield this spring.

When Gray unfurls a pass up the middle, chances are that senior tight end John Rabe will be there to snatch it. Practice on Tuesday didn't stray from what has become the norm as the Gophers enter the final week of spring ball. Rabe rumbled 20-yards through a series of defenders and turned in time to corral a throw from Gray before he was immediately tackled to the ground.

"That's John's play," Gray said afterwards with a grin.

Rabe could be making that play frequently come fall. If the spring is any indication, the Gophers are focused on getting him and his fellow tight ends better incorporated into the offense.

A distinct connection between Gray and Rabe began to be fortified in the off-season as the pair developed a rhythm during workouts and captains' practices.

"It's been working," Rabe said. "I'm just trying to do everything I can for MarQueis to get better and MarQueis is making me definitely a better player too."

Originally set to enroll at Northern Illinois for the 2011 season, Rabe -- a transfer from Ellsworth Community College in Iowa -- had his path rerouted northward when former Huskies coach Jerry Kill left De Kalb to take over the Gophers. Within weeks of Kill's arrival, Rabe was at the "U".

His first season followed the slow adjustment script that junior college players often endure when making the change to the Big Ten game.

Fighting through lingering pain from a knee injury suffered early in fall camp, Rabe saw his playing time come in doses. But the times when he was an offensive target, he capitalized. He caught only four passes last year (36 yards), but two of those were turned into touchdowns -- both of which came in one of the Gophers' rare wins (against Miami-Ohio and Illinois).

Barring injury, Rabe's stat line won't be as limited this season. With a youthful and developing receiving corps, the Gophers are in need of a sturdy, reliable downfield threat, who is able to absorb a heavy hit if need be. It's a job description that fits the 6-foot-4, 255-pound tight end well.

"When you look at pro football, if you have a productive tight end -- somebody who can get open and make a play or two and also can block -- it's important," Kill said. "John is going to have to be productive."

The thinking among members of the offense is that Rabe will be an unexpected and unpleasant surprise for opponents, beginning with the Gophers' Week 1 match-up at UNLV.

"John is one of the secret weapons on this team," Gray said. "Not many people know about him, but he's a big weapon and is going to be able to do some things for us to help us score points."

Notes

• While the passing of former teammate Gary Tinsley was a tragic occurrence, the Gophers have used his death as a rallying point. After a difficult week spent coming to terms with their grief, the players responded with an upbeat and competitive scrimmage Friday night at TCF Bank Stadium that Kill later labeled as the team's "best" practice in his tenure at the "U."

"I think it affects all of us, but I think it affects us in a good way," Kill said. "I think it has brought us together and made us closer. And it should."

Early Saturday morning, the entire team boarded a plane to Jacksonville, Fla., where they filled the pews at Abyssinia Baptist Church for a memorial service that paid homage to the well-respected Gophers linebacker.

"It was certainly a tough day, but it a good day for the family and being together with our players," Kill said. "I think Gary's mom and dad feel like they've adopted a whole bunch of kids."

• The Gophers were back at the Bank Tuesday for their third straight practice at the three-year old stadium. While it wasn't a full scrimmage like Friday, the offense and defense were unleashed to run through several sets of downs after spending the first hour running through individual drills.

• Spring practice is likely over for senior linebacker Mike Rallis after tweaking his hamstring early in the team's scrimmage on Friday. Rallis was in an orange non-contact jersey on Tuesday. The necessity to risk further injury is non-existent. Kill said the Gophers are not "going to take any chances" in playing any guys who are questionable in Saturday's spring game (11 a.m.).

Sophomore running back Devon Wright joined Rallis on the injury list Tuesday when he pulled his hamstring in warm-ups. His status, like Rallis' will be determined as the week goes on.

• Unlike his first year on campus, Kill insists he intends to treat the annual spring game like an actual game as long as the Gophers make it to the weekend with a "enough healthy bodies" to field two squads.

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