Q&A with 'U' OC Matt Limegrover: Offense starting to form new identity
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It's a critical year for the Minnesota Gophers offense, and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover knows it.
While the "U" defense has made significant strides in the first two years of coach Jerry Kill's tenure, the on-field results offensively have been minimal. Owners of the Big Ten's worst statistical offense in 2011 (18.4 points and 310.3 yards per game), the Gophers' output bumped up only slightly last season, rising to ninth in scoring offense (22.1 points) and 10th in total offensive yards (321.4).
Since Kill and Limegrover began their full overhaul of the offense, the unit has been searching for an identity and a level of stability. Those attributes are finally in reach for the Gophers as they prepare to open fall camp on Friday.
After thrusting Philip Nelson into the starting quarterback role midseason, the Gophers spent the rest of the year slowly trying to mold their offense around the power-running and option style game plan the coaching staff had always wanted to cement.
From the Gophers' strong offensive performance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl to their up-tempo showing in spring practices, those adjustments are beginning to show signs that they are taking hold.
But while the potential for considerable improvements is there, the outlook for the offense in the year ahead is shrouded in a thick veil of mystery.
The following are highlights from a lengthy conversation last week with Limegrover in his office at the Gophers' Gibson-Nagurski building.
With senior starting quarterback MarQueis Gray, who was also the primary face of the 2012 Gophers, nursing ongoing injuries, Kill and Limegrover chose to take the redshirt off Nelson and give him the reins to the offense seven games in. From that point on, the Gophers set off on a new path to craft their offense in a way that resembled the offenses that worked for Kill's teams in past stops. The process has been a slow one, but the strides made in the last six months have made it seem more likely the unit is on the right track.
"MarQueis was a Big Ten talent, but the problem was that everybody else knew that as well. So when you're playing against some of the nonconference teams he could exhibit that, but when you got down to the nitty gritty of it those teams were able to lock down on him and take him away.
"When Philip took over we said, 'OK, now everybody else has to step it up, because we can't ask this freshman kid to carry the same load of what we wanted MarQueis to carry.' So when we did that, even though we struggled there was kind of that redistribution (responsibility)."
"We had never asked quarterbacks going into something to do what we were kind of asking MartQueis to do, even Chandler Harnish. Chandler had a great year our last year at Northern, but we were never going into a game thinking, 'we're going to feature Chandler.' He did a great job of taking what the defense gave him, because we had a great tailback. They couldn't take away both."
Nelson, who started seven games as a freshman, enters camp atop the Gophers' depth chart, but redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner is not out the picture. In fact, Leidner is expected to see snaps this season, at least in a limited capacity.
"Mitch has done a good job of closing that gap. Philip knows it. It isn't like now he's like, 'OK, now I'm on easy street. I've got three more years.' It's a great way to get the most out of a kid, knowing that there is somebody breathing down your neck or there's somebody right in front of you. That's what's happening on a lot of positions on this team."
"Our quarterbacks are our leaders. Our quarterbacks are "that guy." Those guys understand that and starting to accept it more. It's heading in the right direction. There's still going to be those bumps. You're still talking about one of those two guys starting the season for you -- one is a sophomore, the other a redshirt freshman."
"How much is (seven) games of playing experience? At some point you threw Philip in there and he held his own, so why couldn't Mitch do the same thing if he gets far enough ahead. I will say, the fact that Philip has gone through that is an advantage he has. So when you're looking at it that does bump him up."
"It's not like you're saying that we've got this young hotshot and this old, grizzled veteran, Philip Nelson ... Five games, six games (experience) is not necessarily a lot. In some respects it is but not necessarily."
"That competition continues to grow. It makes up for a lot of things. Complacency gets you 6-6. Competition, if it's the right kids, can get you to 10-2. That's the exciting part about it. Where does this take us? Those kids being a tad bit uncomfortable is not a bad thing, because it keeps you on your toes."
The Gophers' run game experienced a vast range of highs and last season, emphasized by the 231-yard output they had against Illinois that was followed two games later yards by a total of four rushing yards in a loss to Michigan State. But what was somewhat diminished in those ups and downs is that now-junior Donnell Kirkwood was 74 yards from becoming the Gophers' first 1,000-yard rusher in six years.
With Kirkwood back, the Gophers have a legitimate leader at the forefront of the tailback unit. But the run-first "U' offense is expected to feature more than just Kirkwood. Sophomore power back Rodrick Williams Jr. is back. Junior David Cobb is down to what may be his final chance to capitalize on the potential to be a top option at running back in the way the coaching staff has always thought possible. Freshman Berkley Edwards has arrived on campus with notable hype, and is being targeted to work into the rotation right away.
"The thing about it with David is that it all has to do with David. You sit there and look at some of his testing, you look at some of the things he does when he has the ball and even when he doesn't have the ball, you go, 'OK, this kid can play in the Big Ten.' If you didn't have a name on him and you compared his numbers to some of the guys who will be considered some of the better backs in the conference, he will size up favorably in those types of things. When you give him the ball, there are times when you go, 'Oh, man.' All of sudden he'll be pass protecting and he'll step up and he'll knock a linebacker back. It's consistency. It's maturity/consistency, because we're at the point in David's career that we can't coddle him.
"With Berkley, we'll create some things if he shows he can handle it to get him in there and get him the ball, because he'll bring a different dimension. But with David he's kind of gotten over that. He's got to fit into that complete back category. That's what Kirkwood kind of learned."
"Donnell Kirkwood saw that and said, 'You know what? Someday I want to be a really good Big Ten back, but I want to do it the right way. So that's what his progression has been. He's become that guy that wants Rodrick Williams to take that next step, just like Duane Bennett wanted Kirkwood to do. He's on David Cobb about it. It comes down to that consistency that comes with maturity."
"I've talked to Cobb about it. (Running backs coach Brian Anderson) is worn out talking to him about it. Coach Kill has talked to him. You have the physical talent, but we're not going to play you on physical talent alone. And stop teasing us. Make that commitment to the mental part of the game. If he does, we'll continue to give him opportunities. We don't shut people out if they contribute and help us win games. He fits physically into that mold, but at the same time, if he's falling back into the same patterns and he hasn't figured it out then everybody else starts stepping up closer to the top."
On Edwards ...
"Freshmen are complete wild cards. You can know what he did as a high school football player, you can look at what he did running the 100-meter dash in the state championship or the 55-meters, you can look at all those things and say, 'OK, he has all the makings.' But you've got to make sure when you put the kid in and you want to get him the ball that he is lined up on the right side. This is what happened with Rodrick Williams last year. We couldn't keep him in on pass protection, because he wasn't getting it. Then it was tough, because for as good as he could be in our offense and what we got to, it was tough to keep him in because you didn't want to be showing your hand. It isn't hard for a (graduate assistant) or a quality control guy breaking down film to go, 'Hey, coach, when 35 is in there tell everyone to think run first. Tell those safeties to make sure that they really see the quarterback clear with that ball, because 35 is going to get the ball because you can tell that they're not real fired up about him being in there.
"Same thing with Berkley. Can we utilize him as a complete player? Maybe it's a small package. Maybe instead of having the responsibility of running nine different run plays in three different alignments, we're going to line you up here and we're going to run two runs and we're going to have three protections and we're going to have a screen. But he has to be competent at all of those. So as we go along, if we feel like we can get that package and compartmentalize for a kid and showcase his skills, I think Berkley has the physical tools to be that guy. So now it's how much does he retain from the summer work those guys are doing on their own and how much can he take when we put the pads and those guys are on the other side chirping at him and wanting a piece of him."
James Gillum transferred to the Gophers last season with the expectation that he would evolve into the team's primary running back. But Gillum struggled when the season finally arrived and was passed in the order by Kirkwood and Williams. Gillum could still work his way in at running back in his senior year, but Edwards' arrival has upped the competition even more.
"What we underestimated a little bit was that he had a lot of wear and tear on the tires coming in. He ran the ball a lot in junior college. He played hurt and never really healed up. Getting here he wanted so hard to impress, there was never a time where his body could take a break ... He wanted to impress. He wanted to be that guy. But he couldn't get to that in-between, that needle went right to red with him. I don't think he ever got as healthy as he could have been. That was tough for him."