Minnesota Gopher Football 2011 Preview: Position Battles

Fall camp begins today, and with it the REAL competition begins. Jerry Kill has talked a lot all offseason about competition and working hard, and how important that is. The guys had four quick weeks in the spring, and then a long couple of months without the coaches to improve their strength and conditioning and whatever else they could. But now the practices begin in earnest and the freshmen and transfers are all on campus and ready to go, and it's all leading up to real games, and a real BIG test to start the season September 3 against USC.

Kill and Co. have already named a few starters: MarQueis Gray at QB, Da'Jon McKnight at WR, Eric Lair at TE, most of the offensive line, Troy Stoudermire at CB, and Kim Royston at FS. So yeah, there's a LOT of playing time up for grabs. Here's the battles for starting position in order of importance/concern:

WIDE RECEIVER
Ok so Da'Jon McKnight is a starter, but he's not yet fully healthy, as he's still recovering from a knee injury. TE Eric Lair was also hurt in the spring, but is supposedly good to go for the fall. And slot receiver Marcus Jones is a true freshman two star prospect who was recruited as a defensive back but switched to receiver in the spring because either a) he was so good in the slot they had to switch him or b) he was only the guy amongst the wideouts showing a pulse besides McKnight and Lair so they didn't have a choice. And there are what we know for sure about the receiving corps heading into fall camp. The best possible outcome (along with a fully 100% healthy Da'Jon) is for fifth year junior Brandon Green to seize the other starting outside spot and give the Gophers some stability. He's the only receiver on the roster not wearing #6 who has caught a meaningful pass in a Big Ten game, and he's by far the most experienced guy. But a knee injury ruined most of his 2010 season, and it made him a virtual non-factor in the spring of 2011. I would feel most comfortable if he were able to get healthy and get on the field because he's at least a known entity in this equation. After him? Some potential, but it's a group of complete unknowns. JUCO transfers Ge'Shun Harris and Malcolm Moulton bring some promise and perhaps experience beyond high school (at least they started and played well in JUCO, right?) but despite his size Harris didn't wow anybody in the spring, and Moulton? Well he was a very late signee, so we'll see. There's a host of returning Gophers with little to no experience, with the leaders of that group being AJ Barker, Victor Keise, and Xzavian Brandon. Brandon has the most potential and ability of the three but- and stop me if you've heard this before- he's been hurt pretty much his whole career thus far. So who knows. Barker and Keise did the most with their opportunity in the spring, but yet didn't do enough to earn a start. Then you have the two incoming freshmen Devin Crawford-Tufts of Edina and Quentin Gardner of Texas. Considering the coaches threw Jones in there and loved him, it's entirely possible one or both contribute and maybe even start right away. And it's entirely possible neither one see the field in 2011. This is the position of greatest concern because after McKnight and Lair it's a complete unknown. I'll sleep easiest if Green comes out on fire in camp, but absolutely anything is possible here.

DEFENSIVE BACK- 2ND CORNER, NICKEL BACK AND SS
I'm throwing these all together in one big mess of uncertainty. There are more known quanities here than at receiver since there are so many guys back who actually have played- and played a lot- at the U. The problem is, none of them played particularly well in 2010. Troy Stoudermire is the starting "boundary" corner, and Kim Royston is the starting FS: That much we know. Yet neither of those guys are exactly risk free: Stoudermire has only played the position for half a season and Royston is coming off a serious leg injury. Success for both guys isn't guaranteed, but it's far more probable than what we're dealing with elsewhere. We'll get into this more in our positional previews, but we haven't seen or heard much to make us not worried here thus far. I THINK James Manuel is the starting SS, and while like most of the DB's he got lit up like a Christmas tree last year, he was also a true freshman. At 6'2 and 214 he's got good size and clearly has some talent, but we'll see. Christyn Lewis is likely the other competitor there. At corner... yeah your guess is as good as mine. I THINK Kyle Henderson and Johnny Johnson are the second and third corners as of now, but that could change at any moment. Too bad we don't have a highly touted corner recruit who played really well as a freshman before his level of play dropped like a stone last year. Oh wait, we do? Yeah THAT guy stepping up in a big way and living up to his potential would solve a lot of problems.

DEFENSIVE LINE
GN did an excellent preview of the defensive ends, and we'll have the DT's done here soon. Like the DB's there's a lot of guys with plenty of experience returning for 2011, and like the DB's they all played pretty poorly in 2010. Unlike the DB's however, there's more ability here and more depth, and I just have more confidence DC Tracy Claeys can get this group to improve in a hurry. Then again, how hard can it be to improve on NINE SACKS?!?! Yeah that has to get better. Has to.

RUNNING BACKS
The departure of Deleon Eskridge certainly hurts this position, but it's a loss that can be overcome. First of all, the running game is about more than just the guys carrying the ball. The offensive line should be bigger and better than last year, and with QB MarQueis Gray as essentially another running back (and a damn good one) that should make the running game that much better already. I do not trust likely starter Duane Bennett to stay healthy all season (he hasn't for basically his entire career), but hopefully the coaches can limit his touches enough to make him as effective as possible when he's out there. There's a stable of young running backs behind him, including three from the class of 2009. Donnell Kirkwood played well as a true freshman before getting hurt and ending his season (he received a medical hardship waiver so he won't lose a year of eligibility), and should be the lead candidate to steal Bennett's job and touches. Woodbury's Lamonte Edwards is a bruiser at 6'2 and at least 210 pounds, and LOOKS like the total package- except he didn't prove it in the spring. Devon Wright is likely the fastest running back on campus, so we'll see what he brings, and don't rule out true frosh David Cobb making an impact.

RIGHT SIDE OF THE OFFENSIVE LINE
I believe at least three of the five spots on the O-line have been locked down: Ed Olson at LT, Chris Bunders at LG and Ryan Wynn at C. Senior Ryan Orton left spring ball as the RG, but we'll see what happens now that true frosh Tommy Olson is on campus and at practice. RT is Jimmy Gjere's to lose, and I think he keeps it, but he was banged up a big in the spring so he didn't get as many reps as the coaches would like. Depth on the o-line is certainly a concern, but if five of these six prove worthy of starting (and I should include soph Brooks Michel pushing Gjere at RT) the offensive line will be fine. And maybe, for the first time since the Mason years, we could even call them a "strength." I know, what a concept.

LINEBACKER
Have the coaches actually named the three starting linebackers? I was under the assumption that Brendan Beal left camps as the starting MLB, but FBT disagreed. Claeys did say we could see both Beal and Tinsley get extensive time at the position- perhaps even at the same time- so I guess we can't give the job to Beal just yet? I still think Tinsley gets pushed outside, but we'll see who Claeys trots out there September 3rd. Basically it's still the same situation we had when spring ball started, with four qualified candidates- Beal, Tinsley, Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis- for three spots. This is by far the deepest and most talented position on the team, so whatever happens and whomever starts, the Gophers will be in good shape here.

As for the rest? Let the competition begin!

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