Sandell's notebook: Can Gophers improve on their paltry pass attack?
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MINNEAPOLIS -- While the Minnesota Gophers made major strides in 2013 towards defining themselves as run-heavy, power football team, the lack of a viable passing game was a glaring hindrance to the offense's identity.
The Gophers ranked 115th in the FBS last season in passing (148.1 yards per game). That was better only other eight teams. An ever-changing situation at quarterback, a crop of inexperienced receivers and obvious pass blocking deficiencies combined to make the offense far from a formidable threat through the air.
Minnesota is intent on changing that. That remains one of the biggest preseason questions: Can the Gophers' pass game takes that much-needed developmental leap?
Addressing the issues in passing situations has been a major focus for the offense in fall camp. The group has proven it can establish a strong run game, but the other piece of the puzzle must fall into place if Minnesota's offense intends to contend with the upper echelon of the Big Ten.
• The responsibility for leading the charge for improvements falls in large part on quarterback Mitch Leidner. In the last week, Leidner has earned high marks from the coaching staff and teammates for his progress so far in camp, including a strong showing in last Thursday's scrimmage.
Apart from working to speed up his delivery, the sophomore starter says his overall decision-making and ability to make correct reads has steadily improved.
"I feel like throughout camp I've learned to be a lot better with the football in the pocket and making throws, and at the same time knowing when to escape," Leidner said.
As for Leidner's willingness to scramble for yardage (407 rushing yards in 2013), the coaching staff has talked with him about being more selective and smart about when he chooses to run out of the pocket. With very little depth at quarterback, the Gophers cannot afford to lose Leidner to injury.
• Finding a reliable set of targets at wide receiver is critical for the Gophers. Dropped passes and questionable routes were far too common a year ago. Minnesota is banking heavily on sophomore receivers Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky to be key pieces.
Equipped with outstanding athleticism and speed, Jones is being cultivated as a big-play receiver. Jones is still raw, with a tendency to try to do too much. However, receivers coach Brian Anderson has worked extensively with the 6-foot-3, 200-pound receiver in hopes of priming him to make a leap forward this season.
"I'm trying to progress him faster, because I know he has it," Anderson said. "He can be a dominant receiver in the Big Ten if he continues to push himself."
• Wolitarsky has been limited recently in practice due to injury, but the Gophers sound confident he will be ready for the season opener next Thursday against Eastern Illinois. His status is something to watch in the days leading up to Game 1. Wolitarsky, the Gophers' second-most targeted receiver in 2013, is projected to again play a significant role on offense. Like quarterback, the Gophers don't have much depth at receiver to absorb many injuries.
• Jerry Kill has expressed a desire to keep a redshirt on freshman receivers Melvin Holland and Isaiah Gentry. But to do so, the Gophers have to get reliable production not just from Wolitarsky and Jones, but also senior Isaac Fruechte and junior K.J. Maye. If the receivers don't make noticeable strides in the first two or three nonconference games, the coaching staff may have a difficult redshirt decision to make.
• Freshman Jerry Gibson has been used both at tight end and a bit as an inside receiver. His flexibility may be enough to earn him playing time this season.
• Coming off a breakout season as a redshirt freshman, tight end Maxx Williams is embracing the heightened responsibility he is being given on offense. Williams, who led the Gophers in receiving yards (417, five touchdowns), expects to be used even more in the passing game this season.
"I feel like I have more of a role, motioning, kind of getting out wide," Williams said. "I like it. It makes me feel like I'm more a part of the offense, a little bit bigger role this year."
• Williams' emergence as a go-to threat could serve as a major boost to the rest of the group at tight end. Given their growing number of options, the Gophers have been integrating more tight end-focused personnel groupings. That could help to bolster their rushing attack, and might also open more opportunities in the pass game.
Drew Goodger and Lincoln Plsek continue to be rotated from series to series in the Y-tight end spot. Expecting that Williams will be a marked man for opponents, both Goodger and Plsek understand that puts pressure on them to take advantage of the opening they may get.
"Our job is to block, first and foremost. But at the same time, we both know that if there are opportunities for us to make plays we have to make them," Goodger said. "With Maxx being such a matchup nightmare, defenses are going to try to maybe get two bodies on him and that is going to leave us open, so we have to make plays."
• The Gophers' depth at offensive tackle is already being tested. Starting left tackle Ben Lauer has been sidelined with a high ankle sprain. Kill said he is confident Lauer will be back by the opener, but in the meantime starting right tackle Josh Campion has switched over to the left side to fill the opening. Jonah Pirsig, who returned practice Tuesday after sitting out with a groin injury, has moved up at right tackle.
The Gophers are in need of lasting stability on the O-line, as they try to make needed pass blocking improvements. Minnesota gave up 27 sacks last season (fifth-most in the Big Ten).