Sandell: Dissecting 'U' football roster as summer preparations begin
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Progress isn't easy to quantify in an off-season following a three-win season, but there is a guarded optimism around the Gophers football team that second-year coach Jerry Kill is slowly stabilizing a program that was in a state of disarray when he inherited it.
After a successful spring practice season, which was notably more efficient and up-tempo than a year ago, the Gophers are set to begin summer workouts with less than three months remaining until fall camp begins.
However, with perceived progress comes elevated expectations. In his first season at the helm in 2011, Kill was given a pass as his team slogged through a 3-9 campaign in which the "U" found itself at times thoroughly overmatched and out-coached. Finding positives out of that lost season is difficult, but what was gained came out of the necessity to use the bulk of its despairingly youthful roster. While some players were inserted before they were game-ready, the benefits from that move should be seen, at least in small doses, this season.
Kill and his coaching staff have admitted to the mistakes committed in their first season, and have made adjustments in the winter and into the spring.
"That's what a big challenge for us is -- taking that year of knowledge and say, 'Let's not have history repeat itself,'" offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said during spring practice. "Let's make sure we don't make those same mistakes as coaches and make sure we do our best to put the kids in the best possible situations, which you always try to do but sometimes you misjudge a kid's talents, abilities or strengths.'"
"I wish we could have done it sooner, but sometimes when you don't have the full picture or full set of information it is tough to get there as quickly as you'd like sometimes."
Though the Gophers athletic program and its fan base have embraced Kill, the leeway he had in year one is gone. It's obvious the Gophers are still a rebuilding program trying to instill a level of respectability, but on-field results in the form of wins and an upgraded competitive edge will be expected of them in 2012.
It's unrealistic to believe the Gophers, whose talent level still falls short of the majority of teams in the Big Ten, could post better than a five or six win season. However, the improvements are there to expect that Kill's scrappy and developing squad is tracking upwards, though where that upswing will plateau is unknown.
The following is a brief and very early position-by-position projection of what to expect from the Gophers come late August.
The starting job is MarQueis Gray's to lose. Throughout the off-season and spring, the Gophers' coaching staff has reiterated that Gray remains rooted to the top spot. Don't take that to mean that the senior quarterback won't be challenged by back-up Max Shortell and heralded freshman Philip Nelson, who enrolled a semester early to join the team for spring practice.
Gray displayed a clear upgrade in confidence during the spring, showing that he is embracing the leadership role that is expected of him. His mechanics have improved - he is slowly shedding his run-first instinct - though there are moments when he reverts back to old habits. In order for the Gophers to erase memories of their sputtering offense last season, Gray will be needed to provide a balancing force under center, relying on his teammates downfield more frequently, while also being unafraid to make a tough call if necessary.
With Duane Bennett gone, the Gophers' top backfield spot is open for the taking. Sophomore Donnell Kirkwood's 243 rushing yards in 2011 is the most among the team's returning running backs. However, he isn't the frontrunner to get the job. Junior college transfer James Gillum, who was recruited out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, was praised by the coaching staff during the spring for how well he was adjusting to the offensive system, as well as for his field vision and burst off the line. If the 5-foot-11, 204-pound back continues to progress accordingly, he has the ability to take on a large number of carries.
"James Gillum is going to be a special player," Kill said. "He's picking up a totally new offense, but he runs with a low pad level. He is a physical runner and he has great speed ... He's going to be a great pick-up for us."
Kirkwood and fellow sophomore David Cobb, who tallied 57 yards off 10 carries last season, will remain firmly in the mix if they can stay healthy - both missed time in the spring due to injuries (Kirkwood - hamstring, Cobb - knee). Devon Wright, a nimble six-foot, 195-pound redshirt sophomore, is also another option available for coordinator Matt Limegrover.
Void of depth and severely lacking experience, the Gophers receiving corps was disastrously inconsistent last season, relying heavily on senior Da'Jon McKnight to reel in 51 passes for 760 yards - more than three times the numbers of any other 'U' receiver. But the group saw the emergence of several potential standouts who could readily fill the vacancy left by McKnight's absence this year.
Sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts flashed a big-play mentality in his freshman season, racking up 156 yards on eight catches. With a layer of muscle added in the off-season to his lanky 6-foot-2 frame, he will be relied on to be a vertical threat for the Gophers. As long as sophomore Marcus Jones' remarkably fast recovery from an ACL tear last October remains on-track, the crafty 5-foot-8 receiver will give Gray a speedy option to gain yardage in a pinch.
The 2012 season serves as a last chance for redshirt senior Brandon Green to display the ability to be a go-to receiver. Green has fallen short of expectations since he joined the team in 2008, but as the elder statesman of the group he has the opportunity to put himself at the top of MarQueis Gray's list of downfield targets. With the addition of three-star recruit Andre McDonald out of Hopkins high school, the Gophers wide receivers are slowly gathering depth. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover hinted this spring that the group is poised to be the offense's most improved position.
Referred to by MarQueis Gray as the offense's secret weapon, senior John Rabe is the Gophers' No. 1 option at tight end. In nearly every scrimmage this spring, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Rabe, who was used mainly as a back-up last season, could be seen hauling in a numerous passes sent up the middle by Gray. It was evidence that the Gophers intend to use their tight ends, including junior Kendall Gregory-McGee and incoming freshman Maxx Williams, as viable downfield threats, with Rabe being put at the forefront.
"When you look at pro football, if you have a productive tight end -- somebody who can get open and make a play or two and also can block -- it's important," Kill said. "John is going to have to be productive."
Projecting who will start on the offensive line is where things get hazy. Limegrover, who also serves as the O-line coach, has an array of options available that have in-game experience, but overall the group skews young, with offensive tackle Ed Olson and center Zach Mottla - both juniors - standing as the oldest members on the line.
Injuries were a major concern in 2011 and caused the Gophers to change the make-up of their line on a game-to-game basis. The status of Jimmy Gjere remains a concern as he is still recovering from a concussion he suffered against Michigan last season after starting five games at right tackle. Sophomore Josh Campion, who is also coming back from a concussion, was limited during the spring, but is expected to be available this fall.
Used in an 11 games in 2011, sophomore Tommy Olson will likely start again at right guard. With the prominent improvements made in the weight room across the line,- expect the unit to be improved this season, though there will still be a definite learning curve
The Gophers doubled their sack numbers from 2010 last season with 19, but there was not much room to go anywhere but up after getting to the quarterback an NCAA-worst nine times. The Gophers defense, which gave up on average 21.5 points per game in the first half alone in 2011, gradually settled into defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys' system as the year progressed, but there is still a staggering amount of room for improvement waiting to be made.
As the saying goes, defense starts up front. With everyday starters Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs graduated, the Gophers will turn to redshirt junior Ra'Shede Hageman and sophomore Cameron Botticelli to log considerable playing time at defensive tackle. At 6-foot-6, 300-pounds, Hageman has the athletic make-up to be an imposable force in the Big Ten, but he has yet to meet the hype that has surrounded him since his arrival four years ago.
The "U" defensive line remains slightly undersized, but they do have a decent amount of quickness. Sophomores Ben Perry and Michael Amaefula, who combined for 31 tackles last season, are the top candidates to start at defensive end.
Seniors Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper front one of the Gophers' rare positions with a notable amount of experience. Rallis was moved to middle linebacker at the start of spring practice and it is where he should start when the Gophers open the season against UNLV on Aug. 30. Cooper will be lined up beside Rallis on the outside - a position from which he combined with Rallis to finish third and fourth on the team in tackles in 2011 with 160.
The Gophers moved Lamonte Edwards from running back to linebacker in the middle of last season and shifted James Manuel up from safety to create added depth. Both are projected to see the field on a regular basis as the transition has gone smoothly. Senior Spencer Reeves and junior Aaron Hill are also among the players who will compete for a starting role in fall camp.
While wide receiver was arguably the weakest part of the offense in 2011, the Gopher secondary was the Achilles heel of the defense. Beset by a tendency to give up big plays on a frequent basis, the Gophers allowed opponents to pass for 2,600 yards, ranking 106th in opponent passing efficiency among the 120 FBS schools.
But the "U" placed its focus on remedying that in the off-season and what has resulted is a newfound layer of depth.
"Between the development of the (players) that were here and the ones that we've added, we're actually going to have a little depth there. So I feel really good about that," Claeys said.
Cornerback Troy Stoudermire returns after being granted a fifth year by the NCAA in the wake of a broken wrist that caused him to miss the majority of the 2011 season. Martezz Shabazz -- one of the Gophers' top junior college recruiting targets -- joined the team in January. He will give the Gophers added speed and athleticism at corner that was lacking a year ago. Senior Michael Carter, who has played sporadically in his first three years on campus, will be Shabazz's main competitor for playing time.
Junior Brock Vereen, a starter in all 12 games last season, has been shifted over to safety. Vereen remains a favorite to start, though he sat out the entirety of spring practice as result of a knee scope he underwent in the off-season. Sophomore Derrick Wells made the move to safety as well during the winter, while putting on 25-pounds. The bulked up Wells was used frequently on the first team defense in the spring. Sophomore Cedric Thompson, redshirt freshman Steven Montgomery and transfer Briean Boddy will be crucial in shoring up the perceived depth of the secondary.
Chris Hawthorne began the 2011 season as the Gophers' starting kicker, but was replaced by Jordan Wettstein seven weeks in after injuring his leg. Wettsetin solidified his spot by not missing a field goal attempt (6-for-6, including a 51-yarder against Illinois). Barring injury, Wettstein isn't in jeopardy of losing his starting spot, though Hawthorne is capable of filling the role if he falters.
The biggest change on special teams is likely to come at punter. Junior Dan Orseske has been the Gophers' starter for the last two seasons, but he has averaged only 36.6 yards per punt in that span, putting him at the bottom of the NCAA FBS rankings. Redshirt freshman Peter Mortell is primed to snatch the starting spot. Kill, who puts a large emphasis on coaching special teams, consistently lauded Mortell's potential throughout the spring.