With the exception of Jeffrick's posts, Gopher Football has strangely been falling under the radar around here. But I suppose that will happen when the men's hoops team wins an NCAA Tournament game, fires their coach, goes through a coaching search, hires a coach with hall of fame name and then goes on to deal with recruiting issues and hiring of a new staff. Lots to cover there, leaving little time for football coverage when we have real jobs and families and stuff like that. But you don't want to hear my excuses so let's talk some football.
Spring practice has been happening and there has been some coverage of these near daily events from around the rest of the Gopher interwebz. Part of me has a difficult time getting too excited about practices occurring in April, much changes and guys who have outstanding springs do not always parlay that in to an outstanding fall. These are valuable practices and they are an opportunity for the coaching staff to move some guys around, but there is still a lot of time before fall camp opens up. So please keep in mind that this is April and sometimes spring practice leads to great things in the fall, sometimes it does not.
With that caveat, let us take a look at the offense, by position.
This position is pretty well set as far as the 2-deep is concerned.
Taking over mid-season as a true-freshman, Nelson showed some signs of promise at times and showed his true freshmaness at many other times. Leadership and accuracy are the major questions heading into his sophomore season. After his first two starts he finished the season completing only 43.3% of his passes (over final 5 games). Everyone was willing to accept the fact that we were giving reps to a true freshman in the teeth of the Big Ten schedule, but accuracy needs to dramatically improve if Nelson is to lead this offense to more yards-points-wins this season. Reports are that he has improved his leadership and ownership of the huddle, which are positive signs of overall improvement.
Typically the game slows down dramatically for sophomores and this is what Gopher fans are banking on. Nelson should be able to think less and play more naturally. This ESPN profile on Nelson discusses his maturation a bit.
"I'm getting used to the little things that the defense gives away to know what coverage they'll be in," he said. "I'm able to relax in the pocket and make the right throws."
The other freshman last year who was able to maintain his redshirt was Leidner. He is being given an opportunity to compete for the starting job, but nobody believes he'll earn it. In last weekend's scrimmage he did reportedly have a steady performance, but it was a spring scrimmage so I'm not getting too excited. Streveler is a true freshman who is on campus early and is getting time this spring. Could he be the third true freshman to get snaps in three seasons under Coach Kill? Doubtful this year. Barring injury, Nelson will be starting on August 29th.
Last year Donnell Kirkwood came just 74 yards shy of being the first Gopher running back to have 1,000 yards since Amir Pinnix in 2006. This was a bit of a surprise considering that Kirkwood was coming off a pedestrian freshman season (to be fair 2011 was his first season back after knee surgery). Now fully healthy, Kirkwood displayed a bit more shiftiness and elusiveness to go along with his punishing style. Kirkwood produced far more than I was expecting and isn't settling for having just a pretty good season last year.
"I have got to work harder. Somebody is coming to be that starting running back. I want to continue to be that man and I have to continue to keep working."
The other back expected to get the lion's share of carries will be Rodrick "Nugget" Williams who started getting significant carries last year as a true freshman about midway through the season. He ended up with 261 yards and a team running back leading 4.6 yards per carry. Nugget is also more of a bruiser than a burner, but he showed some ability at the end of last year. Assuming he stays healthy he should get his fair share of carries and the opportunity to push Kirkwood for the starting tailback role in the Maryland I.
After those two there is a stable of backs with the opportunity to earn carries and even prove themselves to be lead-back material. David Cobb is getting quite a bit of press this spring as the team's best athlete and a kid who matured a bit later and is possibly a sleeping giant in the backfield. This is where I remind you that it is spring ball! James Gillum is the JUCO back who was expected to make positive contributions last season but that never materialized. Gillum finished with 73 yards on 27 carries and 1 touchdown in 2012. He is being slowed by injuries this spring.
Coming this fall we'll have the offensive headliner of the 2013 recruiting class, Berkley Edwards. The true freshman is billed as an elusive back with good speed and he should offer a skill-set not currently in the Gopher backfield. He has the ability to be a game-breaker, but as a true freshman it is difficult to predict how much he'll be able to contribute. Certainly excited for his future.
This is the position group of greatest concern. None of the returning receivers reached 20 receptions last year and one guy who showed some ability to be a very good Big Ten receiver is currently not with the team. There are really a ton of question marks within this group and every one of them needs to improve.
The guy with perhaps the most upside (not including Andre McDonald, who we'll get to in a moment) is probably Devin Crawford-Tufts. Now entering his junior season it is time for the lanky and speedy Edina native to step up in a significant way. DCT is one of the fastest sprinters in the Big Ten finishing 4th in the 60 M dash at the Big Ten Indoor Championships and 8th in the 200. But this straightline speed has never really translated to an advantage on the field. This may be partly due to QB play and/or offensive line play, but he needs to increase production and I think his greatest contribution to the offense could (should?) be his big-play ability downfield (see Iowa 2011).
After DCT we have a couple of white-speed-receivers. Isaac Fruechte is the team's leading, returning receiver with 19 receptions as a sophomore and two touchdowns. He is 6-3, 205 and has decent speed. He was a sophomore, JUCO transfer last season and has the skill-set to be a nice starting receiver for the Gophers. Up next is Derrick Engel, your newest walk-on receiver who might just end up being our leading receiver. The team's leading receiver in terms of yardage and Engel capped off his junior season with 4 catches and 108 yards in the bowl game. Reports out of spring ball are that he may be our best receiver in terms of catching everything thrown his way and being able to get open.
In the slot the Gophers are hoping that Jamel Harbison is able to return from his knee injury and be the dynamic play-maker he showed last fall. As a true-freshman he earned the start in the Gopher's first game of the season, unfortunately that was the one he was injured in and promptly received a medical hardship waiver to allow him four full seasons. I expect he'll start in the slot. Close behind him and getting plenty of reps will be K.J. Maye who played in all 13 games last year as a freshman getting 17 carries, 11 receptions and returned kicks. He is a quick kid who played QB in high school, look for him to get the ball in his hands more often this year in various situations.
Devon Wright was moved to receiver from running back where he was stuck in a crowded backfield, I wouldn't expect much production out of the junior.
The real wild-card is Andre McDonald. The sophomore is not currently on the roster but along with Harbison probably has the best opportunity to be a dynamic and one of the better Big Ten receivers. Some maturing appears to be in order, along with getting more serious in the classroom, but when McDonald gets things figured out he really could be an excellent receiver. Big, strong and a guy who really goes after the ball in the air. He needs to get things in order and get back with the team before August.
New blood coming in will be Eric Carter out of Florida and Drew Wolitarsky, the state of California's all-time leading high school receiver. They will have a unique opportunity to earn playing time as true freshmen considering there are few (if any) receiver spots locked up. Wolitarsky is 6-3 and 208 lbs, as mentioned he set California state high school career records for both receptions and yardage (previously held by St. Louis Ram's Steve Smith!). Big target with a history of production, Wolitarsky is one of the freshmen I'm really looking forward to watching. Eric Carter is 5-11, 185 and helped lead his Florida high school team to the 6A state title game. 103 receptions, 1,666 yards and 15 touchdowns over his final two high school seasons.
This is an area that I believe is one of strength for the Gophers. John Rabe graduated after a couple of nice seasons but these three guys are all guys that I think be very good. Goodger started 7 games last season and will likely be the one running with the first team offense. Three touchdowns on 13 receptions last year, at 6-5 and 265 Goodger is a big kid who is an every-down TE. Behind him will likely be the sophomore, Plsek who was a defensive lineman (and offensive) in high school. With good size and athleticism, Plsek should fit nicely into the rotation at TE. Lastly, don't count out the redshirt freshman Maxx Williams who has been getting some publicity this spring. His grandfather played QB at Notre Dame, his father played football for the Gophers and his mother played volleyball for Minnesota. But on his own merits, Williams is a very athletic kid. Watch for him to be a play-making TE in the passing game and I fully expect he'll get plenty of reps in this his freshman season.
Starter: Ed Olson, Zac Epping, Jon Christenson, Caleb Bak, Josh Campion (left to right)
Backup: Marek Lenkiewicz, Tommy Olson, Brian Bobek, Zach Mottla, Jonah Pirsig
Dark Horse: Isaac Hayes, Foster Bush, Ben Lauer, Joe Bjorklund
Incoming: Alex Mayes (OT)
This guess at starters is largely a guess as the only one I'm confident will be starting is RT-Josh Campion. The rest of the 12 names listed above could all be starting. This is an experienced group that is actually kind of young, if that makes any sense. No seniors on last year's roster and of the 14 names listed above only 2 are seniors. This group has taken it's lumps the last couple seasons but with more time to add strength and learn the position I am counting on this unit to be a strength of the offense. The position breakdown below is really a high-level overview.
At left tackle Ed Olson has 27 starts in his three years, so the smart money is on him starting game one at LT. Epping was versatile and once called the best offensive lineman on the team last year, he started all 13 games last year and while I'm sure he'll be starting week 1 I'm just not exactly sure what position it will be.
Center is an interesting position, I think if the season started today it would be the sophomore Christenson. He started three games at guard and three at center as a redshirt freshman last year, so much like Epping he could be seen at guard or center. Closely behind him at center, and one of the highlighted position battles of the spring, is the Ohio State transfer Brian Bobek. I think eventually Bobek will be our starting center but I'm not sure he has taken the spot yet.
On the right side, I think you'll see Caleb Bak starting at RG (though it could be Epping or Christenson or Mottla). Started 11 games last year and was a surprise 4-game starter as a walk-on freshman. And at right tackle I guarantee you'll see Josh Campion. He started every game at RT a year ago as a freshman and will likely anchor that spot for the next three.
As mentioned there are a host of guys listed as 2nd string above who could all be starters, and likely will start at some point due to injuries. Lenkiewicz has been running with the first team at LT this spring when Ed was out with an ankle injury. Tommy Olson has the skill set to be a very good OG in the Big Ten but has been inconsistent. Mottla started three and played in 7 games before ending his season to injury. He too played very well at times and could be starting at C or OG. Pirsig, Lauer and Hayes are all redshirt freshmen with some promise. These are Kill recruited guys, a couple of them were considered to be pretty good out of high school and they may earn significant playing time as early as this year.
The only scholarship incoming freshman is Alex Mayes who almost certainly will redshirt. He looks to be a very good tackle, down the road but don't expect him to play in 2013.
So there you have the offense as we know it today.