Usually at this time of year, the weather is freezing and it doesn't feel anything close to spring, or time for spring ball. But with summer showing up 4 months ahead of schedule spring football seems like it's a couple of months behind. Whatever the case, I'm always glad spring practice is starting as it does this Thursday for the Gophers. Jerry Kill's second season begins, and he and his staff have a lot of work to do with a very young roster, but one that gained plenty of experience in a three-win 2011 season. To improve upon that in 2012, some more young guys will have to step into some very big roles.
Nowhere is that more true than at three different positions; Kim Royston's starting safety spot, and two we'll look at today, starting running back and wide receiver. Neither tailback Duane Bennett or wideout Da'Jon McKnight had spectacular senior seasons in 2011, but they were dependable and very capable. Losing those kinds of players always stings, but it's magnified this season just because there's so many question marks about who takes their place.
Running back seems to be the most cut-and-dried situation, so let's begin there...The starting tailback spot is pretty simple- it's incoming JUCO transfer James Gillum's position to lose. He was a beast in high school as an all-state back from Louisiana and ran well in his JUCO stint in Mississippi, rushing for over 2300 yards and 25 TD's in two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast JC. He's an early enrollee who got to participate in off-season conditioning and will get a full spring practice in. The simple hope is he continues doing his thing here and takes the running game by storm. If that happens, the Gophers should be pretty solid at running back in 2012. If not, well things could get pretty ugly. Behind Gillum are a young, and questionable group.
Donnell Kirkwood is a third year sophomore who had a promising freshman season cut short by injury in 2010 after just four games. At 5'10 and 215 Kirkwood showed power and burst between the tackles and looked promising before the leg injury ended his season, rushing 27 times for 112 yards. Thanks to a medical hardship waiver he got another crack at his freshman year, and while he stayed healthy, he couldn't earn the trust of the coaching staff, barely doubling his 2010 total with just 229 yards in 12 games. At this point, it's hard to say if Kirkwood is an every down B1G back, yet he has the most experience of any returning rusher.
RS sophomore Devon Wright has great wheels, but the speedster from Florida has not been able to get on the field in his Gopher career, redshirting in 2010 and getting just one carry in nine appearances last season. I'd be surprised if he's much of a factor again this season, but maybe he finally figures it out.
The darkhorse to challenge Gillum is sophomore David Cobb from Texas. The coaches seemed to love him in fall practice, and he showed some great moves in the public scrimmages, but like the others he couldn't gain the coaches' trust during the season, garnering just 10 carries for 57 yards in three games. Word has it he's been an absolute monster in the off-season conditioning program, and if that's true and he has a better handle on the offense, he could take a big step forward in 2012, perhaps even wrestling away the feature role from Gillum if he falters at all. Having two quality backs to take the load off QB MarQueis Gray would be a nice problem to have too.
The wide receiver position is a lot murkier, and likely won't get settled until the fall- perhaps even well into the fall. The Gopher offense under Kill and OC Matt Limegrover has three receiver spots, with two on the outside and one in the slot, and there could be competition for all three. McKnight's departure leaves sixth year senior Brandon Green as the leading returning receiver, and he had a whopping 15 catches for 190 yards and 1 lone score. Green received this sixth year because of a medical hardship waiver granted for missing almost the entire 2010 season. Before that injury, he looked to be making steady progress, snagging 21 receptions in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Then 2010 was wiped out, and he clearly wasn't the same guy last year, as the Gophers were dying for someone to step up and help McKnight, yet Green managed to start just 8 games. Perhaps he just needs another full offseason to get back to full strength, and it'd be a great story if Green became a team leader in his sixth and final season, but it's hard to count on right now. He'll be in the mix for sure for one of the outside spots but it's hard to count on him being the go-to guy right now.
Next up on the experience chart is junior Malcolm Moulton, who had 14 catches for 174 yards and made three starts. He's not your typical outside receiver at just 5'11 and 186, and is better suited for the slot. Moulton made a few plays but also dropped a lot of passes. It seems like every time the Gophs needed a key catch and Q went to him, the ball went right off his hands. That's probably not a fair assessment, but that's my Malcolm Memories of 2011. He has some ability to be sure, and hopefully he can become more reliable in 2012.
Sophomore mighty-might Marcus Jones played in a seven games before a knee injury ended his season, and he's anywhere close to healthy, he's a lock to start in the slot. He's only 5'8, but the coaches LOVED him from the get-go as a true freshman, and he didn't disappoint in the limited time he had with 9 catches for 142. He also housed a 92 yard kickoff return, and is a real threat every time he touches the ball. Look for the coaches to get him the ball anyway they can.
The darkhorse to take McKnight's place is true sophomore- and Edina grad- Devin Crawford-Tufts. He caught just 8 balls for 156 yards, but started gaining the trust of the coaches and offense as the season progressed. At 6'2 with good wheels he definitely looks the part, and while it's a lot to ask of a young kid, he's got the potential. I'm crossing my fingers he has a big spring, and I don't think I'm alone in that thinking.
Incoming are three new guys to the competition, and JC transfer Isaac Fruechte, as the sophomore-to-be, who played one season at Rochester Tech and CC, enrolled in January. He's huge at 6'3 and 210, and has the size Kill seems to like for his outside receivers, since he should help blocking on the outside as well as catching passes. He's not a burner, but should be a reliable possession-type receiver, and if he plays well in the spring could vault himself into a starting spot.
Then there's two true freshman who will arrive in the fall. Despite being behind the others (because they'll miss spring ball, obviously), both have the talent to play right away. Jamel Harbison was ranked as either a 3 or 4 star prospect, and E!SPN loved him, naming him the #11 player in the state of North Carolina. While he's just 5'11, he's built like a running back as he's already close to 200 pounds, and showed great hands, burst and body control on jump balls in high school. Depending upon how everything shakes out, he could play inside or out, but assuming Jones is healthy, and the need on the outside, I'd look for him to get every opportunity there.
Last but not least is that "other" freshman, the top recruit in the state of Minnesota, and a guy I, and a lot of Gopher fans, are the most excited about. Andre McDonald, like Harbison, already has a college level build to him, but the difference is he's 6'2 instead of 5'11. A late commit, he has the potential to play immediately, and while he's not a real burner, he's got good speed for his size, and he uses his hand and size really well. The Michael Floyd comparisons have been floated around quite a bit, and while they're convenient since both are Minnesota kids with similar size, it may not be far off. Ok, I HOPE it's not far off, because McDonald could answer the Gopher's receiver questions in a hurry if he proves to be the guy he's pegged to be. I'm not sure he starts right away, but I'd be shocked if he redshirts, and I think he could be starting by November.
Can you imagine McDonald and Crawford-Tufts on the outside and Jones or Harbison on the inside? It's an extremely young group, but an exciting one. We'll find out starting Thursday how ready some of them are, and will have to wait until August to get a glimpse of McDonald and Harbison, but I think they'll be worth the wait.