It started in the pouring rain but ended in the sun, hopefully like some kind of metaphor for Jerry Kill's coaching career at Minnesota? Ok, ok that was a lame intro- what do you want, us bloggers aren't in mid-season form yet either. So today was day 1 of fall practice, already less than four weeks away from the season opener in Vegas, as the curtain goes up on Coach Kill's second season with the Gophers.
Before we get into it, let's just step back and remember to take everything with a gigantic grain of salt: this was not only one practice but the FIRST practice, so we're not about to jump to conclusions about how the season is going to go based on today. But, it was great to see the team out there and to see practices that mean something. It was also good to see the new helmets, which looked REALLY sharp. The first thing GN said when he walked in was "the helmets look good!" And he was correct. The black facemasks with the non-shiny tone looked tough. I really think you're going to like them if you check out a practice or once you see them live at TCF Bank Stadium. We're just going to break down some observations based on position, and we'll give how the depth chart looks after day 1. Some of these will change, but I think it's a pretty good barometer of where we're at.
No surprise to see #5 take charge, and he looked like the leader and senior he's supposed to be. He also looked much more confident throwing the football, although he's still working on his accuracy. Again, it's just the first day of practice. Also a little scary to think that he's the biggest non-linemen on the field, and he's also the most dangerous running the football, something you won't see him do in real time here in practice. Still, we're in good hands at the QB position with Q.
The battle you're probably more interested in is for the #2 spot between sophomore Max Shortell and true freshman Philip Nelson. Just from today, it looks like Max Shortell's spot to lose. He looked good throwing the ball last year in practice and you could see the confidence and arm strength. It's not that Nelson looked bad by any means, and he and Shortell rotated in and out of drills with the 1's and 2's all morning. If Nelson's not going to start this year- and barring catastrophe he's not- he should redshirt. Shortell looking good thus far makes that decision even easier. A question though, and one GN and I weren't 100% sure of the answer, is what are the restrictions on redshirting players for road games? I ask because the Gophers only have four QB's on the roster, two of them are true freshman, and one of them, Mitch Leidner, is guaranteed to redshirt already. So Nelson, then, is your third string QB. If you're on the road for a game and disaster strikes and one of your QB's goes down, you need the third to be able to step in. We guessed Nelson could travel with the team but not dress, and he could still keep his redshirt. Anyone know if that's correct?
James Gillum is definitely the starting tailback to start fall camp. David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood got plenty of reps with the first and second team as well, and there was Devon Wright as the fourth back in the rotation. Gillum definitely looked the best of the four, but the coaches are going to give all four of them work. Lakeville native and Mankato State transfer Cole Banham even got a few carries with the second group. Looks like true frosh Roderick Williams Jr will be redshirting as he participated in all the running back drills but went off with the 3rd string and freshmen during group drills.
A lot of pressure on a relatively inexperienced group of wideouts, and by "relatively" I mean Brandon Green is the lone senior, and the only juniors are Malcolm Moulton, Victor Keise and Derrick Engel, and Keise and Engel have gotten about as close to getting on the field as you or I have thus far in his career. Everyone else are freshman or sophomores, and three of them are in their first season with the program. So yeah, there's some question marks, but the receivers did acquit themselves pretty well. Green had the play of the day with a diving catch 25 yards down the sidelines in good coverage, and caught everything thrown to him in drills. Green's not going to be as dynamic as Da'Jon McKnight last year, but they just need to him to be consistent and someone they can count on to make the tough catches.
Running with the 1's the entire day was sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts, who looks very smooth and made some nice grabs. With his combination of size and speed he's got some real potential to be a dynamic receiver in the Big Ten, but we'll see if he can hang onto that starting spot first. Moulton, who started almost every game last season, participated in every drill but didn't see one practice snap with the first or second group. Don't know if he was injured or it was for disciplinary reasons, but I highly doubt Moulton will be kept with the third string for long.
Marcus Jones was the main slot receiver and he looked good- especially for a guy coming off a major injury. Be sure the coaches are going to work to get the ball in his hands as much as they can this season because the young man is a play maker and the offense needs as many of those as they can get.
If you're wondering about the two highly touted recruits, Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison, they looked the part. McDonald is the real deal. If you were to line up the wide receivers and ask someone who didn't know who was the true freshman, McDonald might be the last guy you'd pick. He just looks the part, and from what we saw today, he played the part too. He's likely not going to be a starter to begin the season but he should be in the two-deep rotation, and he's going to make it very tough on the coaches to redshirt him. Harbison looked solid as well- both figuratively and literally. Seeing him in person for the first time you understand why people were talking about him as a "Percy Harvin-type" receiver, as he's built like a running back but catches and run routes like a receiver. He got most of his reps in team drills in the slot, and it'll be interesting to see what the coaches decide to do, not just with him but with Moulton, who at 5'10 seems more suited for the slot but played mostly outside last year.
The third newcomer to the receiving corps is JUCO transfer Isaac Fruechte. The sophomore from Rochester Community College is 6'3 and 205, and he's also one of the fastest receivers on the team. He also looked very smooth in drills and made a couple of nice catches against the DB's. For him, like with McDonald and Harbison, it's going to be an adjustment going against BCS-level competition, but being a couple of years older with at least some JUCO experience under his belt means there's no way he redshirts and should be competing for playing time all season.
Two other guys who ran with the 2's in drills were the aforementioned juniors Keise and Engel. Keise was for awhile highly recruited out of high school but a knee injury hurt his status and performance. He has decent size at 6'1 and looked ok. He might just be a depth guy, but the coaches are giving him an opportunity. Engel sat out last season after transferring from D2 basketball powerhouse Winona State (I think they're ok at football too?), and brings pretty good size and hands at 6'2. Like Keise he may just be a depth guy this year, but keep an eye on how he performs in practice this month.
The Gophs lost their two top pass catchers from a season ago in Collin McGarry and Eric Lair, and the coaches are giving plenty of guys an opportunity to fill that void. The offense also employs an H-back/full back role, and while the official roster only lists junior Mike Henry as a fulback, it did look like there were a couple of different TE's shifting into the backfield as well. Senior John Rabe is the starter at TE and will stay on the line. After that it's a smorgasbord of inexperienced but intriguing options. Converted DE Kendall Gregory-McGhee stood out for a number of reasons, including his un-TE like number 19, and his massive size, listed at 6'5 and 273. Not sure how much he'll factor into the passing game, but the coaches love his potential as a blocker. Another junior, Minnesotan Sahr Ngekia got plenty of run as well. A "smaller" guy at ONLY 6'4 and 245, he made a few nice catches and seemed to block pretty well. Sophomores John Rabe, lex Bisch and Gabe Mazzenga also got some time with the first groups.
I don't think the coaching staff is looking for great pass catchers from this group, as they didn't throw to the TE's much in their offense at NIU. Part of that could have been a lack of capable pass catchers, but it looks like the blocking aspect is much more important here, and they're less worried about finding someone to replace McGarry and Lair's productivity.
You know what? We still have to an o-line upgrade/downgrade preview for the offensive line, so let's save the O-line comments for that piece which should go up tomorrow. Football is almost here people. Rejoice and be glad in it.