It's spring football and I'm excited, and I'm trying to find something to talk about that we haven't already talked about. Or talked about much. Much of the spring is focused on figuring out the two deep and what kind of depth we have at every position.
So, like a man wearing stretchy pants in his room, "just for fun" I thought we'd rank the positions on offense and defense from weakest (or more worrisome. Whichever you choose there, I'm not going to force you to go with one) to strongest. And because I know you're wondering, Jerry Kill's moustahce was #1 on the list before he shaved it.
I'm including tight ends, H-backs, fullbacks, and whatever other positions of blockers/receivers Jerry Kill and Matt Limegrover come up with for their offense. I'm doing that because this position can use all the help it can get, and at this point, some of those guys might end up playing a big part in the passing game. This is the position of greatest worry thus far, and I imagine will be that way all season long, which is interesting because the best player on the entire team, Da'Jon McKnight, is a receiver. McKnight could be one of the best PLAYERS in the Big Ten this season if everything goes well, but there's just nothing but questions and concerns after him. USC could throw all four defensive backs on McKnight in the opener and just dare anyone else to catch the football and beat them. Ok, ok that may be a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. There's just such a lack of depth, experience, and talent after McKnight that right now the coaches are just throwing everything they can think of at the wall to see if it sticks. Marcus Jones is a true freshman who played primarily corner in high school, yet has been running with the first team as a slot receiver all spring. JD Pride was switched from QB to receiver despite never playing the position, and the coaches are also considering moving TE Eric Lair outside as well. Victor Keise has looked ok filling in for the injured Da'Jon in practice this week, so perhaps he's an answer? IF, and right now that's a big if, Brandon Green can get healthy and get caught up and/or Ge'Shun Harris can start putting it all together, and/or maybe one of the other freshman comes in this summer and lights it up, then the #2 wideout position could be solved. I'm just not counting on it until we see it actually happen.
6. DEFENSIVE BACKS
The DB's are neck-in-neck with the receivers for most concerning/troubling/worrisome group on the team. It's a competition in much the same way all the major Twin Cities sports teams seem to be "competing" for who can do the worst. I gave the DB's the edge here because the receivers have ONE rock solid guy in Da'Jon (I'm not counting Lair in that part yet because I'm just not sure how and where he'll be used yet and how he'll respond), while the secondary has two: seniors S Kim Royston and CB Troy Stoudermire. Royston was a beast two years ago as a junior before breaking his leg and missing all of last season, and looks to be on track for a full recovery by the season opener. Stoudermire switched from receiver to corner midseason, and improved greatly in his last four games of 2010. This spring he's been a monster and dare I say it COULD be up for all-conference consideration in 2011. The #2 and 3 corner spots remain wide open, as does the starting safety spot opposite Royston, which could be a good or bad thing, depending how you want to look at it. Not sure how talented the guys who win those jobs are going to be, and it'll mean the secondary will lean heavily upon Royston and Stoudermire to be leaders and playmakers. At least we know both of them will be up to the challenge.
5. DEFENSIVE LINE
Some definite promise on the interior line with seniors Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs already locking down starting jobs, and behemouth Ra'Shede Hageman playing better and better. We've seen glimpses from the edge guys, but not at the same level as the interior guys. At least not yet. I love DC Tracy Claeys and trust he knows how to get the best out of his kids, but I'm still not sure the talent is there on the edge that he'd like. I'd love to be, and hope to be, proven wrong about that.
4. OFFENSIVE LINE
The first five have looked good, and barring injury (like say, I don't know, a concussion to Jimmy Gjere?), this group is locked and loaded for the start of the season. I like the younger guys in the second group, but they're lacking experience, so the health of the line will be vital to the success. Gjere has been out almost a week with said concussion, and backup Brooks Michel has been out a bit with a concussion of his own. Hopefully neither are anything serious they'll be back out there hitting people soon. With experience and some pretty good talent, this is the best I've felt about a Gopher offensive line since the Mason Era.
So how is the QB spot only third on this list? Shouldn't Q, by himself, be worth more than THIS? By the end of the season, I think he will be, but right here, right now, there's still a lot of work to be done by him and the other QB's. Q's worth ethic has been nothing short of exemplary, and it's going to result in some progress, some points, and hopefully, some wins in 2011. But as we've been seeing and reading from practice, the defense remains ahead of the offense and there's been interceptions aplenty from Q and the other passers. It's to be expected, and nothing to be overly concerned about. We have great coaches who know how to teach, and we have exactly the guy we want running the offense and leading the team (really I don't think Limegrover could design from scratch a better QB for his offense than MarQueis). But with any new offense AND any new QB starting for the first time, there's going to be a learning curve. Starting the season at USC is NOT the trial-by-fire you'd want, but if they don't get overwhelmed and Q can do some positive things, they can really build on their next three non-con games, all of which are at home. I'm expecting (hoping) to see a much different and better looking offense by the Big Ten opener against Michigan than we see to open it up vs USC. Passing could be a bit of an adventure the first few weeks, but the running game (and Q's running ability) should be incredibly fun to watch from the get-go.
2. RUNNING BACK
Deep, deep, DEEP. Haven't been able to say that about the running backs for awhile now. But it's a group that goes at least five deep with talent, and for the most part, experience. Two solid, reliable seniors, and three very talented redshirt freshmen who all bring something a little different to the table. Duane Bennett's health is the key, and if he could just stay healthy for the entire season, I think he puts Limegrover's words from last week of "a five man committee" to bed. Duane has flashed all-conference ability before, he just needs to to do it for an entire season.
We've been saying it all offseason and now all-spring: there's AT LEAST four guys who could start at linebacker in 2011, but there's only room for three of them. I still think the MLB job is Brendan Beal's to lose, but if he is pushed out, it means the guy replacing him is playing extremely well. Pretty amazing that Gary Tinsley, the team's leading tackler and best defender in 2009, has missed time with injuries this spring, and yet this position has still been the best bar none. Keanon Cooper has been a house afire all spring, making plays all over the field. Yet as good as he's been, we've been seeing and hearing Mike Rallis' name a lot too. Three of those four should start, and yet the guys playing behind them have been very good too. A nice problem to have, and certainly one I hope we have at more positions in the near future.