Notebook: Gophers' Leidner likely to start in place of injured Nelson
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The likelihood of redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner is making his first collegiate start Saturday in the Minnesota Gophers' fourth and final nonconference game against San Jose State continues to rise.
Coach Jerry Kill said Wednesday sophomore starter Philip Nelson is at about "75%," still trying recover from a hamstring strain he suffered in the second quarter of the Gophers' defeat of Western Illinois last week.
In the meantime, Leidner is being prepped as if he will be making the start. Leidner was strong in his replacement role last Saturday, running for 64 yards and passing for another 105 (7-of-8) in the Gophers' 22-point second half rally.
Nelson, who has battled hamstring issues in the past but hasn't missed a game, practiced Wednesday, but was limited. He took reps where he threw or handed off the ball, although Kill said Nelson was not able to run.
Kill is preaching caution, but won't go as far as to officially rule him out. However, expectations are that Nelson will not start.
"We'll have to be careful," Kill said. "We won't take any chances whatsoever. He's moved around better than I figured he would. And at the game I thought it was his knee. So relatively speaking, we're in good shape."
The first and second team offensive reps have gone instead to Leidner and true freshman Chris Streveler.
With Nelson and a capable backup in Leidner in place, it was widely assumed the Gophers were gearing up to keep a redshirt on Streveler, a 6-foot-2, 209-pound Illinois native with increasing upside. In case Leidner had to come out for a play or two last Saturday, the Gophers had a contingency plan in place to put in another player to take the snap in order to avoid using Streveler.
That approach appears to have changed with Nelson likely to be sidelined temporarily. Kill expressed no hesitancy about playing Streveler this season, possibly as soon as Saturday.
"We may play Chris. He's done a pretty good job," Kill said. "The way I'm approaching it right now, if we were to play tomorrow, Chris is our No. 2 quarterback and he needs to be ready to play. And it if Mitch gets tired, we're going to play him."
Will Kirkwood play?
Redshirt junior running back Donnell Kirkwood, a 15-game starter, is back at practice, but he may either be limited Saturday or sit out for the third straight game. Having been hindered since the Gophers' season opener with a sprained ankle, Kirkwood is slowly being folded back into the tailback rotation.
Luckily for the Gophers, they have a surprising gift of depth in the backfield. Sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr. and junior David Cobb have emerged as more than capeable No. 1 and No. 2 options. That leaves a little more leeway to hold off on throwing a high number of carries Kirkwood's way in his first full week back.
"Donnell is trying to get back in that routine," Kill said. "Right now we've got two good backs doing a great job, so we can be smart."
Lauer to start
Offensive tackle Ben Lauer had been getting increasing praise from the coaching staff in the first two weeks of the season.
That turned out to be foreshadowing as the 315-pound redshirt freshman was sent in to replace left tackle Marek Lenkiewicz after the first series last Saturday.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said Wednesday he plans to keep Lauer in the starting lineup.
"He really did a good job (against Western Illinois). He only made a few rookie mistakes that you kind of have to live with," Limegrover said.
"We felt like we needed to get a little bigger and get a little more push at the point of attack. Marek Lenkiewicz does a great job, but he's lost some weight through camp and the early parts of camp. He's only 290 now. Having that 20-30 pounds in there makes a difference."
Where is Donovahn Jones?
Freshman quarterback-turned-wide receiver Donovahn Jones did not play in Week 3 after seeing a slightly increased role one week earlier during the Gophers' road trip to New Mexico State.
Kill said Jones' absence was primarily a scheme-based decision, while also adjusting for the ups and downs that come with working in a freshman early in the year.
"He's still learning," Kill said. "We've taken a kid with a lot of talent and moved him to a new position and it's not easy to do that. Then when you're a freshman trying to learn to practice at the college level, that's even harder. We're trying to get him to mature as fast as he can, but it's a process."
The Gophers didn't choose to forgo redshirting Jones just to have him stand on the sidelines, so expect him to continue to be slowly integrated into the offense, which could benefit from his top-end speed.