Good post yesterday from Phil Miller about Marcus Jones getting increased reps in Tuesday's practice with Da'Jon McKnight sidelined. Jones has been a pleasant surprise for the coaches, as it's looking more and more like he'll be the starting slot receiver come fall. But the one line in Miller's piece that stood out for me was this about McKnight:
and other than MarQueis Gray, there probably isn't a more indispensable player on this year's roster.
McKnight's knee injury apparently looked scary, but he should be fine. Still, the thought of losing him for any stretch this season has to be frightening for the coaches, and for us fans. McKnight basically IS the receiving corps right now, and if he goes down...we might not throw the ball again the rest of the season (that may be only a slight exaggeration). Jones is a true freshman, and despite how well he's played this spring, it's going to be difficult to count on him being a #2 option in the fall playing against Big Ten competition. Yet thus far there's been NOBODY stepping up behind him to challenge for playing time. It's almost AJ Barker by default, and as much as I love Barker's effort, I can't see him doing much against a Big Ten defense. Brandon Green has apparenlty looked good in the very limited time he's played, but that's just it- he really hasn't played much at all due to injury. Same with Victor Keise, and despite Ge'Shun Harris' physical gifts, everything you hear and read from practice says he's just not ready for a prime-time role yet (I know. Shocking that the U has brought in a JUCO wideout who wasn't ready to play. Never happened before).
The coaches are well aware of the depth and talent issue at wideout, and continue to throw things against the wall to see if they stick. Jones was a DB in high school but with his speed the coaches decided to try him at receiver. So far, so good. This week JD Pride was moved from QB, as it became pretty clear pretty quickly that he just wasn't going to be a quarterback for this team. He's not huge nor does he have blazing speed, but he's agile and shifty, and if he can catch the ball at all he'll get a chance. Still, because the change was made halfway through camp, I can't see him making much of impact this season as he adjusts to a brand new position (Let me note again how ridiculously easy MarQueis made playing wideout look last year when he had never played it in his life. It's NOT that easy, and won't be Pride, but he could contribute down the road. But seriously, it's just silly how gifted athletically Q is). And now there's rumors TE Eric Lair could be moved to receiver too in some packages (or perhaps full time? We'll see). He has the hands to play out there but can he get separation and get open against DB's who will mostly be faster than him?
So Da'Jon is certainly vital to the success of this team but what worries me, and what could be a real issue for this team in 2011, is the lack of depth pretty much EVERYWHERE. Other than running back and linebacker, the Gophers lack real depth with experience or talent at every other position. So the one thing that could hold this team back in 2011 could have nothing to do with the coaches or players; if there's any injuries to starters that aren't playing running back or linebacker, we could have some serious issues. The perils of injuries to guys like Q and Da'Jon are obvious, but what about the O-line? Thus far there's been five guys the coaches really trust, and they're all starting. While I love the potential of our backups, there'd be a real dropoff from the first teamers to the second team if they have to play extended time. Same with the D-line and corners. We're somewhat deep at D-tackle, but do we have ANY ends who can get up field? We'll see. We have two Big Ten-quality DB's right now, and if god forbid anything happens to either one...egads.
I'm not trying to be a downer here, just trying to temper my own expectations for this season. I LOVE Jerry Kill and Limegrover and Claeys and the job that entire staff is doing. I love the players we have and the response we're seeing them give to the new coaches and new schemes. For the first time in 4 years I'm excited about our starting QB, it looks like we've been blessed with another outstanding receiver, our offensive line is potenially as good as any we've had since the Mason years, and our defense might actually stop somebody this year. I really think if all goes well this could be a six win team, but if we miss a bowl game for a second straight season, I'm betting injuries to key guys will as much to blame as anything. So let's hope everybody stays as healthy as possible, and we could have some fun- and even some hope- when watching the Gophers in 2011.