Notebook: Gophers linebacker James Manuel moving up the depth chart
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Of the Gophers' several offseason position changes, junior James Manuel's move from safety to linebacker wasn't met with a lot of fanfare.
But he is causing the coaching staff to take notice in fall camp.
After an offseason spent rapidly trying to learn the position, Manuel is already making a strong bid for a spot near the top of the depth chart. In the last week, he has started to take a share of snaps with the first team defense and is expressing no uneasiness with the elevated responsibility.
"With me making the transition in the spring, it was a learning process," Manuel said. "Now I'm out there just playing faster."
His adjustment was relatively easy because of a familiarity with defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys' system borne out of steady playing time at safety last season. Though he took on a lesser role than in his freshman campaign, Manuel appeared in all 12 games in 2011, accounting for 11 total tackles.
"We ask our safeties to know what the linebacker and corner job is on every snap," Claeys said. "Moving into linebacker, once the secondary told him a leverage call he understood it because he had to learn it back there at safety."
"Right now anyone who is repping in the first two groups has to feel pretty good about themselves."
The Gophers are front-loaded at linebacker with upperclassmen -- a rare attribute for coach Jerry Kill's team. Senior Mike Rallis is expected to start at middle linebacker, with fellow seniors Keanon Cooper and Spencer Reeves slotted on the outside.
Finally healthy after a year of playing with ligament damage in his right wrist, Cooper has positioned himself as one of the primary leaders on the "U" defense. Cooper, with his top-end speed and acute field vision, has played in every game since his freshman year in 2009 and was fourth on the team in tackles last season (77).
It would be short-sighted at this point to think he won't start on the weakside in the Gophers' season opener, but as linebackers coach Bill Miller remarked off-handily last week Manuel is challenging Cooper for playing time.
"He's getting pushed pretty hard by James Manuel right now," Miller said. "Right now he's just worried about keeping his starting job. That's been a good move for us."
Manuel gives the Gophers another needed layer of outright athleticism at linebacker. Manuel folded in well with the group, enough to earn him accolades from his teammates.
"He's an explosive athlete," Rallis said. "He makes a lot of big plays for us. He's picking it up quick and is definitely going to be a big part of the rotation."
Receiving corps on the mend
Injuries have become a slight concern for the Gophers at wide receiver.
Devin Crawford-Tufts, Brandon Green, Andre McDonald, Victor Keise and Derrick Engel have all missed practice time periodically during fall camp. None of the injuries appear to be any more than minor maladies, but the Gophers have been forced to be cautious at a position where they have minimal backend depth.
The coaching staff's desire to keep a high number of fresh bodies in place at receiver was made obvious Monday. After right tackle Jimmy Gjere announced his decision to retire because of recurring concussion symptoms, freshman wide receiver E.J. Sardinha, a probable redshirt candidate, was selected to fill the vacancy on the team's 105-man camp roster, instead of sophomore offensive lineman Sean Ferguson.
With camp only at its midpoint, Kill isn't worried that any of the team's injuries will carry over into the season, though he said Wednesday he was planning on holding Crawford-Tufts, Green, McDonald and Engel out of Thursday's scrimmage.
Crawford-Tufts, who pulled his right hamstring last week -- the same one he pulled at the Minnesota state high school track and field meet in 2011 -- was back on the practice field Wednesday and afterwards reported no lingering pain.
Keeping the receiving corps healthy will be a crucial task. The Gophers can't afford many personnel losses within the group. In 2011, apart from Da'Jon McKnight, quarterback MarQueis Gray had a very limited selection of reliable and viable targets to choose from. And it showed glaringly on the stat sheet as the "U" passing attack ranked second to last in the Big Ten (150.3 yards per game).
Finding enough quality options at receiver is still one of the most pressing issues facing the offense. However, there is a hope in-house that players like Green, Crawford-Tufts and sophomore Marcus Jones are able to step into elevated roles this season. True freshmen McDonald and Jamel Harbison have been used frequently in camp with the first and second team offenses, hinting towards the Gophers' intention to add the pair to the offensive mix right away.
Entering the second half of camp
Two weeks away from the season opener, the Gophers are gradually shifting into preparations for their meeting with UNLV in Las Vegas on Aug. 30.
Kill said Saturday's scrimmage will be treated "just like if we were going to play in Vegas," complete with pre-game meetings and warm-ups.
Much of the focus in practices has been placed on incorporating the team's younger players into the offensive and defensive systems, while the set starters and upperclassmen are primarily working through plays on the other side of the field.
That will be the case on Saturday as Kill is aiming to use the scrimmage to evaluate the team's numerous newcomers and firm up plans on who will be redshirted this season.
On Sunday, game planning for UNLV will begin, though no practice is slated. Players are being given Monday off before returning Tuesday for the final three traditional practices of camp, leading up to Friday, which will serve as the start of the Gophers' typical game week schedule.
• Running back Donnell Kirkwood, a favorite to shoulder a large number carries along with junior James Gillum, wouldn't be surprised to see speedy true freshman K.J. Maye frequent the backfield in the season ahead.
"I've seen quick, but he is fast and quick," Kirkwood said with emphasis. "I don't think he'll redshirt, but if he does that's' crazy for the next year. He'll be that much more improved and better."
If Maye does play in his first year on campus it is likely to be only in specific situations. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound former single wing quarterback from Mobile, Ala., has distinct shiftiness and speed that has brought him attention from onlookers in the first two weeks of practice. His overall strength and experience as a running back is lacking, which may require a set adjustment period.
• Even without Jimmy Gjere, the Gophers coaching staff feels they are at least two-deep at each position across the offensive line. That perceived depth has yet to be tested and a flare-up of injuries like last season would require the team to dig through their ranks for resources.
Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have worked to increase their lineup flexibility up front by having several of their back-ups take reps at multiple positions.
Redshirt sophomore Marek Lenkiewicz started the final two games last season at left tackle, but is capable of playing on the other side of the line as well. Ernie Heifort has taken snaps in camp at left tackle and both guard positions. The group's standout, junior Ed Olson, makes the most sense for the Gophers at left tackle alongside his brother and left guard Tommy. However, Olson could be the line's utility man if needed, filling a similar role as the one Chris Bunders adopted in 2011.