Minnesota Gopher Football Spring Preview: Offense

Happy Monday. No, really. The snow is melting, spring is officially here, and we're just three more sleeps away from Gopher football spring practice! Thursday March 24 Coach Kill gets to run his first Gopher practice, and it's open and free to the public if you're interested. Speaking of Coach Kill, I was at the Montreal Canadiens vs. Minnesota Wild bloodbath last night at the X, and Coach Kill, southern twang and all, did the "Let's Play Hockey!" thing before the game. Fired up the crowd and apparently Montreal, as they won 8-1 (The Wild, still shocked from the OT loss the night before to Columbus that essentially ended their season, looked like they quit and could care less out there. Just an awful performance).

Anyway, we've been looking at a few different position battles that'll be waged over the next month, but to get you set for spring, let's take a look at what we're going to see on each side of the ball. Today we'll start with the offense, a unit that lost its identity since Glen Mason was fired in 2006 as a run-first philosophy as Tim Brewster tried about nine different systems with nine different coordinators- or at least it felt that way. GN's favorite player in Gopher history, departed senior QB Adam Weber, was a four year starter and had a new offense to learn just about every season, which means Gopher football enters a new era with a new coach and a new QB.

Coach Kill brings with him consistency and continuity in a coaching staff that's been together and won together for a least the past dozen years. He and OC Matt Limegrover like a run-first offense, but unlike Mason's offense zone read offense, this one comes more out of the spread. That seems pretty convenient when we have the #3 dual-threat QB recruit from 2008 ready and waiting to play QB. Limegrover has also mentioned in interviews he likes the offensive linemen that are already here, and thinks they'll fit well into the new system. If that's true, that SHOULD speed up the adjustment that comes with learning a new offense, so while there'll definitely be a learning curve, the coaches shouldn't be trying to fit "square pegs into round holes" so to speak, like with RichRod at Michigan who completely changed the offense and needed completely new personel to run it.

So while it's good we have some players with talent and experience who can fit into the new offense, like with any coaching change, a new coaching staff and yet another new offense means new opportunities for everybody. The slate's are wiped clean, your past transgressions forgotten, and it's time for everyone to prove they belong. While the coaches will talk about EVERY position being up for grabs, the reality is there's a few players who, barring injury or horrible effort, should have a starting spot locked down.

They are...

QB: MarQueis Gray- From what we've seen and read thus far, MarQueis has been putting in the time studying film, and has been a leader in offseason workouts. If he's doing that, a guy with that much talent is going to be your starting QB.

#1 WR: Da'Jon McKnight- the senior led the Big Ten in TD catches with 10, most of which were of the spectacular variety going up and over one or two defenders. He's a beast, and should be a go-to threat all season.

#1 TE: Senior Eric Lair is not the prototypical TE Kill has used in the past, as he's been known more as a receiver than blocker. Kill has preferred road graders, but I think/hope the coaching staff sees the potenial, and that Lair puts in the necessary blocking work to start.

LT: Ed Olson- the mammoth sophomore got schooled a bit early last season, but seemed to really develop nicely as the year went along. He'll be an anchor at LT for the remainder of his Gopher career.

LG: Chris Bunders- A fifth year senior with 28 career starts is going to start this year, especially with how young and inexperienced the rest of the line will be.

Annnnnnnnnd there you have it. Just five guys (not to be confused with the very tasty Five Guys burger joint. Mmmmmm burgers) have spots locked down, so there's going to be a LOT of competition everywhere else.

OFFENSIVE LINE

We looked at this last month, wondering whether true freshman Tommy Olson would start this season, and concluded...well maybe. A distinct possibility, if he's as good as Kill and Limegrover and the recruiting services say he is. Here's what we said back in February:

While the Gophers graduated four seniors along the line (T's Jeff Wills and Matt Carufel, G Dom Alford, and C DJ Burris) the team still returns four players with starting experience, three of them seniors. Chris Bunders has started 28 games at guard in his career (three as a redshirt frosh in 2008, and every game the past two years) and is one of two players that is an iron-clad lock to start again in 2011. Ryan Wynn will have the inside track to be the starting center, as he was the primary backup at that spot in 2010 and had one start in the win against Illinois. He missed all of 2009 with a back injury, but started all 13 games as a redshirt-freshman in 2008 (at guard, I believe). Ryan Orton started three games in 2010 at tackle, and has seven starts as a guard in two seasons before that. He'll be given every opportunity to start at guard or tackle in 2011.

The fourth player who returns with starting experience is Tommy's brother Ed, who as we mentioned above should have starting LT locked down for the next three seasons. The other tackle spot should go to redshirt freshman Jimmy Gjere. We had this to say a month ago about him:

If you remember back one whole year, Gjere was the 2010 version of Tommy Olson. Seantrell Henderson got all of the attention in Minnesota as the nation's #1 offensive lineman (and according to some the top overall prospect), but Gjere was no slouch. He was rated as a top 20 tackle in the country (17 by Rivals, 18 by Scout), and at 6'7 and 300 pounds straight out of high school, he had the potential to help a struggling Gophers offensive line right out of the gate. Still, despite his immense size, talent, and potential, Gjere still redshirted in 2010.

With a year to get bigger, stronger, and quicker, I'd be surprised if Gjere doesn't leave spring as the starter, giving the Gophs as talented a pair of tackles as I can remember. Anyone? We had a pretty good run of interior linemen under Mason with Ben Hamilton, Greg Eslinger, and others, but I don't remember having tackles this promising in a long, long time. And they're homegrown Minnesota kids too! As mentioned above, senior Ryan Wynn has the inside track at center, as he's about the only guy on the roster with any game experience at the position. We've heard rumors Tommy Olson is athletic enough to play center, so perhaps if he wows 'em enough he could overtake Wynn, but we'll see.

Still, Tommy's best chance to start is the guard spot opposite Bunders. Orton is certainly experienced, but is not as physically gifted as Olson or others on the squad. His experience is great, but it might be better served as a backup, as his versatility playing basically anywhere is valuable in case someone gets hurt or struggles. Check out more from our post last month for other competitors on the line. It should be a fun spring to watch the battles up front.

RUNNING BACK

FBT took a good look at this position last week, and it's the one spot where things could really be wide open. Yes, seniors Duane Bennett and Deleon Eskridge have a ton of experience and carries in their careers, so they'd have to enter camp as the favorites to carry the load. But running back is the one position where experience doesn't matter as much, and we see young backs come into the Big Ten and other conferences all the time and play right away. The thinking is, if you can run, then you can run, whether you're a true frosh or fifth year senior, so it'll be interesting to see who Coach Kill likes best in his offense. It could very well be a commitee approach at first, but there's three intriguing redshirt freshmen who will push the seniors for carries. Donnell Kirkwood was pushing his way up the depth chart in 2010 as a true freshman before an injury ended his season. If he's back fully healthy, he'll be a factor. Woodbury behemoth Lamonte Edwards is VERY interesting as the one real power back on the roster. He as a size advantage that none of the other candidates can match, so if he can pick up the offense quickly and show something, that could be an advantage. Finally, there's Devon Wright, who FBT astutely points out is small and quick- just like Kill's tailback last year at NIU Chad Spann, who piled up a ton of yards in that offense. Could Wright be a dark horse in this race?

WIDE RECEIVER

We touched on this last week: Da'jon is the clear #1, but who will be #2? We concluded it's going to come down to Brandon Green vs. incoming JUCO behemoth Ge'Shun Harris. Green has experience and quickness while Harris has size at 6'3 and 210, and is thought of as a good athlete for his size. Per GN, I'm going to hold off in my potential giddyness at the thoughts of a 6'3 Harris lined up opposite the 6'3 Da'Jon, causing matchup nightmares on the outside. Why? Um, because of this guy. And this guy. And him. Yeah, we could use some better luck with JUCO receiver recruits. So for now, I'll temper my expectations for Harris, but at the same time...yeah I can't wait to see him in the spring. Remember, neither Green or Harris caught a pass last season in division 1, and other than McKnight, our other receivers who are actually playing receiver (so not MarQueis or converted DB Troy Stoudermire) this season combined for 2 total catches in 2010.

TIGHT END

The Gophs have had some good tight ends recently- Matt Spaeth and Ben Utech were all-conference performers and went onto the NFL under Coach Mason, and Jack Simmons and Nick Tow Arnett excelled in whatever offense Brewster was running that season. Last year, under two different coaching staffs, senior Eric Lair proved reliable over the middle and wherever else the QB's could get him the ball. So with so few experienced receivers returning, and with Lair proving last year he was dangerous catching the football, how will that translate to a new offense? Kill and Limegrover have favored BIG tight ends who think about blocking first, blocking second, and if there's time, blocking some more. Catching passes? Only after they're done blocking, thanks. So how does pass-catching whiz Eric Lair fit in? Good question. One of the big questions of the spring, in my mind. Lair's certainly not undersized, listed at 238 pounds, but he's not the 250+ guys Kill likes. We'll see. JUCO transfer Tiree Eure was decent as the backup TE last year, and at 6'7 and at least 255, will push for playing time. There's some younger guys with size available too, but really this comes down to how well Lair can fit into Kill's new scheme.

QUARTERBACK

Last, but certainly not least, we come to the position, and the player, who'll receive the most attention this spring, summer, and fall. All eyes will be on Marqueis to see if he can fulfill the huge expectations that come with being a five star recruit, and one of the top high school QB's in the nation back in 2008. He's taken a few snaps in '08 and '09 but was primarily a receiver last year, but now if he's ready and able, he'll be the starter. And I expect him to be. Again, by all accounts he's been putting in the work, and a guy with that much ability is willing to work, he's going to start and I think/hope/pray is going to do well. Not to put anymore pressure on the guy or anything, but MarQueis' development is what will determine whether the Gophs go bowling in 2011.

In late February we looked at who would be MarQueis' primary backup, and while there's a few candidates in play, like at wide receiver it really comes down to just two guys with two different styles. Sophomore Moses Alipate is a classic pocket passer with great size (6'5 and at least 235) and a great arm. We know Kill favors a running QB, or at least a QB who can run, so can Alipate show enough giddy-up to grab the backup job? His competitor is redshirt frosh Tom Parish, who at 6'3 and 215 is already well-schooled in running the spread offense, having led Sconnie high school power Arrowhead for a couple of seasons. He doesn't have Alipate's arm strength but scouts in high school really liked his accuary and touch, which is a big deal. Will it translate to the Big Ten? This battle comes down to whether Alipate can run well enough and whether Parish can throw well enough to win the job.

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