Unlike recent years, Gophers pass eye test on first day of fall camp
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MINNEAPOLIS -- On the first day of preseason training camp Friday, the Minnesota Gophers football team passed the eye test -- something that couldn't have been said about Jerry Kill's squads in August in the past two seasons.
The Gophers have developed some size, from an offensive line that has started to mold into a physically imposing unit to freshman punter Ryan Santoso, who has an eye-catching 260-pound athletic frame.
"We looked different. From the day that we came two years ago to right now, physically we look better and more athletic," Kill said after practice, with a voice that was a bit out worn out.
"We're looking more like a Big Ten team needs to look. Are we there yet? I'm not going to tell you that, but we're looking better."
Day 1 of fall camp was all about getting reacquainted. But unlike in past years, the transition back into practice mode was relatively smooth. Keeping with the strides made in spring practice, Kill's usual up-tempo practice style was on full display, forcing the true freshmen and other newcomers to keep up instead of easing in.
As Kill pointed out, apart from a few new adjustments that slowed down the revamped option, power-run offense, the Gophers were able to pick up where they left off in the spring.
Not much evaluation can be done off the opening practice of camp, but the defense came out strong Friday and took advantage of an over anxiousness and slightly out-of-sync offense.
Kill and Co. are gaining solid credibility in their decision to shift junior Derrick Wells from safety cornerback. Wells has safety size and the speed to excel at his original spot on the corner, and he continues to show it, locking down the "U" receiving corps on Day 1. Wells is an outright lock to start in a secondary that has arguably the deepest unit on the team, alongside the O-line.
Wells wasn't the only standout in the secondary. Junior Briean Boddy and sophomore Eric Murray didn't look to have lost the edge they gained in the spring in the battle for the open starting spot at corner opposite Wells. But Martez Shabazz and Jeremy Baltazar, who both missed time in the spring due to injuries, were back fully healthy and folded right back into the mix at corner.
Cutting down to 105
• The Gophers had cut down to 105 players for the start of camp, which made for the difficult call of leaving out several tenured guys. But as a whole, none of the moves were a surprise.
Center Brian Bobek, who is struggling to rehab from a serious viral infection to his heart, was left off the roster. Bobek has not received medical clearance to play. Redshirt senior tight end Moses Alipate and quarterbacks Dexter Foreman and Michael Conway were among those who didn't make the cut.
"It's always tough to do that," Kill said. "Why the number 105? I was a walk-on kid, so gosh darn it, I may have been 106 ... I'm a proponent of being able to bring in as many kids as are here all summer and that work hard. It's not the way it is."
For the players not on the 105-man roster, they are allowed to eat and convene with the team off the field, but are not able to attend positional meetings or closed practices.
More notes and observations from Day 1
• It's typical for the offense to struggle at the start of camp, and sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson wasn't immune to the trend. Although he looks much more in command in the huddle, Nelson was shaky at times once the ball was snapped, tossing a couple interceptions near the end of practice.
Key backup Mitch Leidner had his ups and downs as well, but had the better day between the two young quarterbacks. The Gophers intend to give at least limited reps to Leidner this season, with his responsibilities likely to largely highlight his speed and mobility.
"I do like running the football," Leidner said. "I was able to get a lot better at that during last season and spring ball."
• It's not time to start throwing around the term "quarterback controversy," but watch out for Leidner. Nelson is the Gophers' starting quarterback, and should be when they open the season in four weeks against UNLV, but it can't be considered a foregone conclusion that he will hold on to the spot all year.
Leidner filled in some of the developmental gap between him and Nelson, who started seven games in 2012, during the spring, and he has an opportunity to catch up even more in the fall.
• The Gophers wasted no time getting freshman wide receiver Eric Carter involved. Carter, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound Florida native, stood out simply by how active he was with the first and second teams, being used in motion and in the slot. Carter even garnered unprompted recognition from Kill afterward.
• Recent converts at center Tommy Olson and Ernie Heifort blended in with the second and third team squads. In the wake of Zach Mottla's unfortunate departure and Bobek's illness, the Gophers shifted Heifort and Olson to center to fill the void. Heifort starting taking reps at center in the spring, while Olson made the switch in the summer.
The glut of offseason snaps they took away from the coaching staff appeared to have paid off in making their transition to their first day back run a little smoother.
"I tell you what, with no pads on they looked pretty good," offensive coordinator and O-line coach Matt Limegrover said. "You put No. 99 (Ra'Shede Hageman) in shoulder pads and we'll see how well they snap. That's a big indicator right there ... They did a great job this summer of doing what I asked them to do as far as snapping the football and becoming proficient at that. They'll have their ups and downs."
• The public turnout for practice was sizable, making the near sideline a little more crowded then past fall camp practices. Like Friday, Saturday and Sunday's practices are open to the public, with a 10:25 a.m. start time for both