Apparently in Minnesota the end of April means both the end of winter (hang on, let me knock on wood...there we go) and the end of spring. Or at least spring football for your University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Saturday will be the 15th and final practice of the "spring" and the first in which the Gophers won't have to practice indoors thanks to the worst April in Minnesota's history (or probably anyone's history that excludes the North and South Pole. And probably Siberia. Because have you ever heard anything good about Siberia?). We hope that you'll be able to spare a couple of hours on what should be a beautiful Saturday afternoon (no really) to check out the 2013 Gopher Football squad, and thought maybe a few words on each position might be helpful to know what to look for.
Although if you're going to the game, no words can be more helpful than this: take what you see, both good and bad, with a gigantic grain of salt because spring ball is to football what spring training is to baseball. Very rarely are the results of what you see happening in the spring a precursor of what will happen in the fall. Both sides of the ball will be pretty vanilla with their schemes and play-calling, and while the starters better look good, it's hard to know how good when you're playing against your own guys. And as for those "breakout stars of spring football", well just remember that spring training comparison as Aaron Hicks had a helluva spring down in Florida, and right now couldn't hit Lake Superior if he were standing in it.
All of this is not to say you shouldn't enjoy yourself and what you see: you absolutely should. For one thing, it's college football and you get to watch it in April. That is never, ever a bad thing. For another, the guys you see out there starting and competing for playing time will give you a pretty good idea of what the coaches are thinking right now of who can help the team and who needs work. The starting lineups on Saturday won't be exactly what we see in the opener against UNLV, but for a lot of positions you'll get a pretty good idea of what to expect.
Sophomore Philip Nelson is supposed to be The Man and needs to be The Man. While I'm not sure he's quite there yet, thus far he's apparently done enough to keep the #1 job. Redshirt frosh Mitch Leidner impressed enough that he's now considered the clear-cut #2 QB, and that bares watching because there's a pretty good chance we'll see the backup QB on the field at some point in 2013. Not because of any doubt of Nelson's abilities as the #1, but because the quarterback can take a beating in this offense, especially what with all the running up the middle Coach Kill and Limegrover seem to demand from their signal callers. Gray didn't make it through a full season unscathed in his two years as a starter, and neither did Chandler Harnish in his three seasons as QB1 for Kill and Co at Northern Illinois. I do not enjoy how often the coaches run their quarterback right into the teeth of the defense, and I'm hoping with a healthier offensive line (which has, yet again, not been healthy in the spring), and more experienced/talented group of running backs (which we'll get to in a minute), it'll mean less carries and less hits on Nelson. Leidner's a different style of quarterback as a big pocket passer much in the mold of the departed Max Shortell. While Shortell didn't work out in Dinkytown, it at least showed the coaches can work with a less mobile QB, so while the offense will likely be very vanilla on Saturday, keep an eye on what kind of sets and plays Leidner will be running- and see if he'll be running much in any of them.
The third stringer this fall looks likely to be RS Soph Dexter Foreman, who didn't see the field last year and wasn't even listed on the official roster. Still, he's apparently been decent enough, and if he can warrant the trust of the coaches it means they could redshirt true freshman Chris Streveler, which would seem to be best for all involved. Streveler is the kind of dual threat athlete the offense runs best with, and he could be a good player down the road. However, reports from practice are that his performance has made him a distant third on the depth chart, and if he's third and you can at all trust Foreman in an emergency situation, it only makes sense to red shirt him. Doing so would give him more time to learn and get comfortable with the offense and the college game, and would put two years of distance between himself and Nelson. That is if Streveler even remains at QB, as his athletic ability may tempt the coaches to try him elsewhere at some point.
The wildcard is incoming freshman Donovahn Jones, an SES!-EE!-CEE!-type athlete who the Gophers stole from Mizzou with a promise of an opportunity to play QB. While I have no inside info on the matter, the smart money says that an offense as desperate for playmakers for this one and someone as marvelously athletic as Jones means the smart money is on him playing immediately as a freshman- but not at QB. We have the rest of the off-season to debate that one as Jones won't be on campus until August.
Just like quarterback, the running back situation is settled at the top as Donnell Kirkwood is the clear starter. After that though it's anyone's guess who will be next in line for carries this fall. The coaches actually cut back "Kirkland's" workload this spring to give more guys a chance to compete behind him, and the results have been...well, insert snarky comment about a gigantic grain of salt because spring ball. Junior David Cobb has made some noise with an impressive spring, and if that sounds familiar it's because he also had some impressive runs in fall practice of his freshman year yet couldn't get on the field. Ditto last year when he had just five carries for eight yards despite being healthy the entire season. It's never been a question of size or talent with Cobb, as at 5'11 and 225 he sure looks like a B1G-caliber back, and you'll think the same when you see him run the ball Saturday. You'll be asking yourself how the heck can this guy not be getting carries? The answer is apparently he's had trouble grasping everything else that goes into being a college running back and college athlete. If- and right now that's a great, big, whopping giant IF- he figures it out that would be huge for the offense and the running game. Or he could also continue to look like a B1G running back while standing on the sidelines the entire game.
Soph Roderick Williams Jr only played in eight games last season yet ended up as the team's third leading rusher and was second amongst running backs with 261 yards at 4.3 per carry. He's your default #2 and you could do a lot worse than a 235 pound bowling ball who knows exactly what he is and what he needs to do for success: keep those pads square, keep them low, run north and south instead of east and west, and punish anything in your path. He got better and better at all of those things as the season went on, and he'll get carries in 2013. The question will be just be how many as Mankato State transfer Cole Banham has made some noise, and there's even be a few James Gillum sightings.
Gillum is a prime example of why you shouldnt get too excited about what you see in these practices and scrimmages as he was touted as the running game savior last year and looked pretty darn good in fall practice in August yet fell further and further down the depth chart as the season progressed. 27 carries for 71 yards and one TD was not what any of us had in mind entering last season, and it says something about the depth the staff has built that he's really not being counted on for anything this year.
Like Donovahn Jones at QB, there's a potential impact freshman coming at running back too in Berkley Edwards, who has the potential to be the one-cut, breakaway threat this team has lacked since the Mason Era. Like Jones, he won't be on campus until August either, so in his absence we'll see how the competition goes for carries behind Kirkwood.