Notebook: Kill optimistic Andre McDonald can earn 'U' roster spot back
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Off the team since December, sophomore wide receiver Andre McDonald still has an opportunity to gain a spot back on the Minnesota Gophers' roster before the start of training camp in August.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill, in a small gathering with reporters Wednesday at TCF Bank Stadium, sounded confident that McDonald is tracking towards getting a second chance.
"Andre is in summer school right now and working out," Kill said. "I feel cautiously optimistic that he will be ready to go."
McDonald, who has dealt with ongoing personal issues, was suspended from the team for "a violation of team policy" in the weeks leading up to the Gophers' 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl (Dec. 28).
McDonald was not enrolled at the University of Minnesota for the spring semester, and did not participate in spring practice as a result.
But since the decision was made to remove McDonald from the team, Kill has continued to leave open the possibility of reinstatement. With the former Hopkins high school star seemingly on an upward track, his return is becoming increasingly realistic.
As a true freshman, McDonald played in eight games and accounted for 121 yards off eight catches.
The Gophers could use McDonald's help to bolster a still questionable receiving corps next season. The unit has struggled for the past two years under Kill to cement a cohesive identity, especially in the wake of A.J. Barker's well-publicized exit from the team last season.
Derrick Engel and Isaac Fruechte, who combined for 631 yards in 2012, began to emerge as key receivers for the Gophers towards the end of last season. However, the group is desperately in need of establishing increased and reliable depth.
The status of offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig, center Brian Bobek and wide receiver Devon Wright remains Kill's primary injury concerns as the start of training camp draws closer.
Pirsig, a 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman vying for a spot in the O-line rotation at tackle, recently underwent knee surgery after reaggravating an ongoing issue with his left knee cap in spring practice. The surgery took place without any major setbacks, but Kill is unsure if Pirsig will be available when camp opens.
A long-lasting viral infection continues to sideline Bobek indefinitely, Kill said. Bobek, finally eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer from Ohio State, missed the majority of spring practice.
"It's a very serious deal," Kill said. "We'll wait and see what they say. Right now, if we were starting tomorrow he wouldn't be able to go. We hope by camp that he's ready."
Bobek has been thought to be a key contender to become the Gophers' starting center, competing with redshirt sophomore Jon Christenson. Apart from Bobek's absence in the spring, the situation at center became further muddled when Christenson injured his ankle late into the series of practices. Christenson has since undergone surgery on the ankle, but is expected to be ready by camp.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover floated the idea in the spring of a starting O-line featuring Bobek at center and Christenson at guard. But with Bobek's status unknown, that combination doesn't seem likely, at least not right away.
Center has been a nearly constant source of concern for the Gophers in the last two seasons.
A slew of injuries forced the Gophers to use five different starting O-line combinations in 2012, including three different centers - Christenson, utility lineman Zac Epping and Zach Mottla. Mottla broke suffered a devastating compound leg fracture on Nov. 10 against Illinois. No timetable has been given for Mottla's return as he has slowly progressed through the rehab process.
Early this spring, the Gophers started transitioning redshirt sophomore Ernie Heifort into a role as a third option at center behind Christenson and Bobek. The move was made out of a desire to avoid a limited depth situation like last season and to keep Epping at guard - his preferred position.
With the season more than two months away, the current question marks at center don't have Kill overly worried yet.
"If I'm losing sleep now I'm in deep trouble," Kill said. "We've got a long ways to go before I'm losing sleep."
Devon Wright's offseason move from running back to wide receiver was slowed up when he had to have shoulder surgery early in spring practice. Wright is questionable for the start of camp, but it seems likely he will be able to return early on.
Redshirt sophomore Peter Westerhaus is also a continuing injury concern, having missed all of spring due to an unspecified injury. Westerhaus has yet to see game action with the Gophers.
• The Gophers' newest recruiting class began to arrive on campus this week, along with the return of the majority of the team's older players. Kill estimates that 85-90 percent of his team is in currently in town, with the remaining players all expected to be settled in by Sunday.
• Key O-line recruiting target Connor Mayes is in the Twin Cities helping his brother Alex, who is part of the Gophers' incoming freshman class, move in. Mayes, a three-star recruit out of Van Alstyne, Texas, was scheduled to meet with a few Gophers coaches on Wednesday. Apart from Minnesota, Mayes is also being recruited by TCU, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma.
• Kill and the Gophers are in the second week of a slate of 'U' football camps that are being held in June and July. After having a crew of second, third and fourth graders in on Wednesday, the Gophers will host several high school junior/senior camps this weekend, with numerous prospects filling the rosters for the team's lineman and quarterback camps on Saturday.
"Our camp situation has gotten better each year," Kill said. "We have more and more each year, more people each year. We're trying to catch some of these (younger kids), so that when they do get into high school they're like, 'Hey, I want to be a Gopher.'"