Updated: February 28th, 2014 7:03pm
Sandell: What to watch for in Gophers' fourth spring under Jerry Kill

Sandell: What to watch for in Gophers' fourth spring under Jerry Kill

by Nate Sandell

The spring practice season is again upon Jerry Kill and the Gophers. Bumped up by about three weeks from its start date a year ago, the Gophers are set to head into Year 4 of the Kill era with the beginning of its annual 15-practice slate leading up to the April 12 spring game.

Eight victories made the 2013 season a milestone year for the Gophers, marking not only a two-win improvement from 2012, but also the program's best record in a decade. Losing to Syracuse in lackluster fashion in the Texas Bowl capped the season on a sour note, but the signs of progress in Kill's third year were still substantial.

Another year brings higher expectations and less room for excuses. That is especially true for Kill, who now has a freshly minted contract extension in hand.

When the Gophers finally kick off their 2014 campaign on Aug. 28 against Eastern Illinois, they will be embarking on arguably their toughest schedule since Kill took over. A road trip to TCU highlights their nonconference match-ups, while they pick up Michigan and Ohio State as their two Big Ten cross-division opponents.

Kill has already taken to using the schedule as a go-to talking point. But for now, it's being used not as an excuse, but as motivation to spur his squad through the offseason.

The typical preseason coaching line of "bigger, faster, stronger" starts building in the spring, and Kill is certainly attaching that mantra to this team. But with spring practice opening up next Tuesday, Kill said he has indeed sensed a certain evolution within the Gophers that signals an understanding of the daunting task that awaits them next season.

"We've got to set our expectations high. We've got to outwork people," Kill said. "There is a difference this year, I can tell you that right now with the offseason workouts."

The Gophers opted to begin practices earlier in March in part to add more of precautionary injury buffer between now and the start of fall camp.

Starting Tuesday, the Gophers will hold six practices across 10 days before a nearly two-week layoff for spring break. They will resume practice March 25, running three per week, concluding with the spring game. All practices are open to the public.

What to watch for:

Leidner geared to take over at No. 1

Two-year starter Philip Nelson is gone, transferred out to soon-to-be Big Ten foe Rutgers, meaning the competition for the top spot at quarterback is now much more cut and dry.

The job is now redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner's to lose. Leidner served largely as Nelson's backup last season, but despite obvious freshman growing pains, he at times outplayed his sophomore predecessor. Leidner played in 10 games, picking up four starts, rushing for the fifth-most touchdowns in program history by a quarterback and throwing for 619 yards (55 percent, 43-of-78).

Unlike his first two seasons, including his redshirt year, Leidner comes into spring practice at the helm of the main offense, fending off competition instead of gunning to take over the starting job.

Spring practice will serve as a key indicator of whether Leidner is truly set to be the Gophers' No. 1 signal caller. So far, Kill has been pleased by what he has seen from his quarterback, whom he said has firmly taken charge of the offense this offseason.

"We haven't had somebody who has stepped outside the box in a leadership role," Kill said. "He's stepped outside the box."

Also keep an eye on the rest of the field at quarterback. Backups Chris Streveler, Conor Rhoda and incoming freshman Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, who early enrolled in January, are sure to get plenty of reps this spring.

Sorting through the options at RB

David Cobb quickly became one of the biggest breakout stars in the Big Ten last season when he went from No. 2 or No. 3 on the Gophers' depth chart to putting together the 12th best rushing season in Minnesota history (1,202 yards on 237 carries, seven touchdowns).

Cobb, now a senior, looks to be the Gophers' main threat again, but he isn't alone in the "U" backfield. There is depth to be found.

Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood, who combined for 452 yards rushing yards in 2013, are both back.It will be interesting to see how the Gophers use Cobb, Williams and Kirkwood in the spring. Kill mentioned the focus would be put largely on getting reps for the team's underclassmen, especially in the first weeks of spring, while being cautious with practice time for the returning starters.

Berkley Edwards is sure to garner plenty of attention. Widely heralded last year as  a freshman, Edwards appeared to be on the brink of cracking the Gophers' tailback rotation before a high ankle sprain derailed him one week before the start of the season. Ultimately, the injury led the coaching staff to opting to keep a redshirt on Edwards.

Now, the explosive 5-foot-9, 190-pound back is ready to reenter the running back competition. The spring will be a crucial proving grounds for Edwards.

Who will step on defense?

The Gophers defense is without four of its 2013 starters, including All-Big Ten honorees defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen.

Those are sizeable shoes to fill.

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has done well to cultivate depth throughout the defense, but losing stabilizing forces on the D-line and in the secondary creates major openings.

Starters Theiren Cockran, Cameron Botticelli and Michael Amaefula are back for the D-line, and will be looked upon to anchor the competition for the remaining spots in the unit's rotation next season.

In the secondary, Kill has praised senior safety Cedric Thompson for picking up Vereen's leadership role. The Gophers are in need of more that from Thompson for the secondary to continue being one of the team's key strengths.

The spring will provide a better idea of what to expect out of the sure-to-be heated position battles among the defensive backs come fall. Thompson and junior cornerback Eric Murray were staples in the starting rotation last year, and should be once again.

Senior cornerback Derrick Wells has dealt with an onslaught of various injuries, but when healthy he can be a critical defensive threat, with the flexibility to play both on the corners and at safety.

Safeties Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis have a big opportunity to take on more playing time after logging a notable number of snaps in 2013.

Used primarily on special teams as a true freshman, Murray took a massive developmental leap last season, becoming the Gophers' top lockdown threat in the secondary. The coaching staff is hoping for a similar trajectory for sophomore safety Jalen Myrick. After having his redshirt pulled three games into the season in part due to injuries, Myrick took over on mainly a special teams role. Myrick could gain significant traction in cracking the secondary rotation with a strong spring.

Watch for cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun to gradually be folded back into the mix after being sidelined for the majority of the last season with a torn ACL in his left knee. At the time, it was a major loss for the Gophers. With an impressive spring and fall camp, Boddy-Calhoun had propelled himself into a starting spot.

Granted a medical redshirt, the junior Boddy-Calhoun is on track to make a full return, but the Gophers will be careful with him in the spring. Kill said Boddy-Calhoun would be cleared for drills, but likely would have his contact reps limited.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell