Sandell: Keep an eye on Gophers' true freshmen in Texas Bowl
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MINNEAPOLIS -- From spring ball into fall camp and onward into the regular season, Jerry Kill, his players and assistant coaches continually pointed to the Minnesota Gophers' 2012 bowl game showdown with Texas Tech as a crucial example of how they wanted to play.
The references to the game came up so frequently that it was easy to dismiss it as hyperbolic talk. But as the Gophers' eight-win season slowly transpired, you realized Kill and Co. were right.
The Gophers' trip to the eloquently named Meineke Car Care Bowl served as a springboard for the success that followed them into 2013.
Yes, the Gophers ended up losing to the Red Raiders, done in by a last-minute field goal in a rollicking 34-31 game. But for the first time in the Kill era the Gophers were playing with a distinguished confidence, showing off the gritty defense and run dominated style that would become their identity one year later.
With a roster that skewed to the young side, the 15 extra practices in lead-up to the game served a critical role in cultivating the Gophers' youthful potential and began turning it into on-field results. It led to a significant leap in development, especially from then-true freshmen like quarterback Philip Nelson, defensive end Scott Ekpe and cornerback Eric Murray - all of whom played one of their best games of the year against Texas Tech.
Minnesota is back for in Houston for another go-around in the renamed Texas Bowl, with a prime chance for its young guns to take another step closer to the spotlight. The Gophers chose to forgo redshirting four of their freshmen this season. Onlookers should keep an on the crew when the Gophers try to notch their first bowl win in nine years and only the program's second nine-win season of the modern era.
"There will be somebody (that steps up)," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said of the team's freshmen. "I don't know who it is, but there'll be somebody."
Wide receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones
For Nelson and the "U" passing game to get back on-track after a poor finish, both Wolitarsky and Jones have to play key roles. The Gophers no longer have Derrick Engel (ACL injury) at their disposal. That has saddled increased pressure to produce on the entire receiving corps, especially Wolitarsky and Jones.
The potential is there - Wolitarsky with his 6-foot-3, 223-pound frame and ability to physically match defenders, and Jones with top-tier speed and agility. As with most true freshman, progress has been made gradually.
Partly out of necessity, Wolitarsky and Jones ended up being the Gophers' second and third most targeted receivers. Battling distinct growing pains, they went on to finish fourth and fifth on the team in receiving yards (Wolitarsky - 11 catches off 28 attempts for 165 yards; Jones - 10-of-26 for 157 yards).
Having to use both freshmen this year wasn't exactly the Gophers' ideal scenario, but it could end up being a major plus next season, and even on Dec. 27 in Houston.
Nelson is expecting a big game out of the duo.
"I remember fall camp nobody thought those two would play, because they couldn't get the playbook down," Nelson said. "Now, all of a sudden, they're out there just like everybody else and they know it all. I think their improvement over the season has been drastic and it's going to be exciting to see what happens in this bowl game."
Defensive end Hendrick Ekpe
Like his brother Scott last season, Ekpe looked the part from the get-go. Standing at 6-foot-5, 251-pounds and still growing, he has the body to develop into a formidable presence on the "U" D-line. Thrust into the D-line rotation right away, Year 1 has been lined with ups and downs for Ekpe, but the physicality that he can bring has shined through in stages (seven tackles in nine games).
"He came in here with a build not like any other of our D-ends," senior defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman said. "He has the size. He has the ability. He had his stumbles just learning the whole defense, but just to see him physically, that was a surprise. As soon as you greet him, you can tell by his handshake that he's a good football player."
Cornerback Jalen Myrick
The Gophers entered the season intending to keep a redshirt on Myrick. But when starter Briean Boddy-Calhoun went down in the second game of the year with a season-ending knee injury, Myrick was thrown into the mix, fitting in primarily on special teams.
Myrick was used in the secondary only sporadically, but he found himself thrust into a big spot in the Gophers' final game at Michigan State. Due to injuries, Myrick ended up stepping into the top spot at corner midgame, helping the "U" defense hold the Spartans to only 22 passing yards in the second half (3-of-9).
"You throw him in there and he did a hell of a job," Claeys said. "All of sudden he picks up confidence."
A jolt of confidence followed by a month to regroup and fine-tune could prove to be key for Myrick when the Gophers meet the Orange next week.