Notebook: Formidable temps likely await Gophers in opener vs UNLV
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Managing the extreme heat of the Las Vegas desert was a major talking point for the Minnesota Gophers in the lead-up to their season opener with UNLV a year ago.
But with a high 90s heat wave and uncomfortable humidity levels settling in on the Twin Cities this week, it is highly likely the Gophers could be facing more formidable game time conditions Thursday when they open the season against the Rebels at TCF Bank Stadium.
An 8 p.m. start time, plus an overcast night in Las Vegas, helped keep the temp in the mid-80s at kickoff last season (registered at 86 degrees by the lead official that night). While the excessive heat facing the Midwest is expected to begin tapering near the end of the week, the two squads could easily be greeted with sticky 90-degree-plus temperatures on field level Thursday.
Coach Jerry Kill is already guarding the Gophers against the unfavorable conditions by scaling down practice times, trying to keep his players as fresh as possible.
"We'll have to be real careful Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday -- those three days -- in what we do, because you don't want your kids worn out before they play," Kill said. "We'll have to go deep into the lineup on Thursday, both teams will."
As Kill said, "depth will certainly be a factor." That gives Gophers more of an advantage in that department than they had a year ago, especially defensively where they are now legitimately at least two-deep at most positions.
Wilson projected to get start
Junior college transfer Damien Wilson is likely to get the start at middle linebacker, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys hinted on Saturday.
Wilson has battled redshirt freshman Jack Lynn throughout fall camp for the starting spot. It is almost certain that Lynn will still factor into the linebacker rotation in Game 1, but Claeys expects to stay with Wilson early on in the game.
"I'd like to be able to stick with one guy for probably three series and see what they're doing," Claeys said. "Then we can show Jack what's going on at the boundary.
Playing without Wells?
• Claeys said the "U" secondary is preparing as if cornerback Derrick Wells will not be able to play against UNLV. Wells has been limited in camp with an ongoing shoulder issue and has recently been hindered by a tight hamstring.
But if Wells gets medical clearance by Thursday, the Gophers won't hesitate giving him the start.
"He's played enough that if he gets the go-ahead to play we're going to play him," Claeys said. "I'm not worried about the number of reps he gets before the game."
Cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy, and safety Brock Vereen are all taking reps as the Gophers' nickel corner in case the speedy, big-bodied Wells is unable to play. The projected ideal scenario in nickel situations is Wells being brought down as the nickel corner, with Murray and Boddy working out on the edges.
Sorting out the O-line
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was very coy in avoiding revealing his starting-five on the O-line. Limegrover insisted the competition at left tackle between Marek Lenkiewicz and Ed Olson, and at center with Jon Christenson and Tommy Olson remains open even five days before kickoff.
"They're still locked in a battle and that's a good thing," he said.
But Limegrover did admit right tackle Josh Campion, right guard Caleb Bak and left guard Zac Epping "have separated themselves from the guys who have been behind them."
• Prediction for starting O-line against UNLV: LT Marek Lenkiewicz, LG Zac Epping, C Jon Christenson, RG Caleb Bak and RT Josh Campion.
To redshirt or not to redshirt
Kill mentioned redshirt decisions are still being debated for several true freshman, including wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, receiver/quarterback Donovahn Jones, linebacker De'Niro Laster and tight end Nate Wozniak.
Freshman quarterback Chris Streveler is also being brought up in those discussions, especially with the progress he has shown in the last a couple weeks in moving solidly into the Gophers' No. 3 QB spot behind backup Mitch Leidner.
"He's gotten better, better and better," Kill said. "Rep-wise he's doing quite a bit with us. He's probably actually getting to do a little more with us, because the situation is a little bit different with us than what Mitch got to do."
If starter Philip Nelson and Leidner stay healthy throughout the season, the likelihood of keeping a redshirt on Streveler is high.
• Defensive end Theiren Cockran said the "U" D-line has set a goal of 30-plus sacks this season. The Gophers finished seventh in the Big Ten last season with 26. Penn State led the conference with 34. A total of 30 would have put them in a tie for fourth with Ohio State.
• It is not a surprise, but indications from the coaching staff are that freshman defensive end Hendrick Ekpe, brother of defensive tackle Scott Ekpe, will play right away this season. Ekpe, who joined the Gophers in the spring, has worked his way up the depth chart to garner several reps with the second team defense.
The rotation at defensive line is projected to feature starters Cockran and Michael Amaefula, with Alex Keith, Ben Perry and Ekpe serving as backup options.