If it weren't for that pesky little relieving-of-duties that happened earlier this week, we might be spending more attention to the Gopher lady pucksters and their amazing run to an undefeated season and back-to-back national championships. And if it weren't for that, we might be paying more attention to the fact that spring practices have started for the football team.
This is a fun time of year. We haven't gotten any real football news since signing day, and we haven't seen players in pads for almost 3 months. Now we get 4 weeks of practices, hitting, drills and scrimmages before the long national nightmare that is the college football off-season reconvenes at the end of April.
In the meantime, we get to ask questions that likely have no answers... at least no answers that will stick in the spring.
Nonetheless, we're here to ask the questions, speculate on the answers, and then sit on our hands until real answers become available in the fall.
Who will emerge at WR?
It’s unfortunate that the biggest question going into 2012 is still the biggest question going into 2013. Even worse is the fact that the one guy who sort of answered that question went all scorched-earth on Coach Kill and is now in football purgatory where his mom's best friend's opinions can't hurt us anymore.
Having said that, you've still got a couple of guys from last year’s squad that appear to have the ability to at least be possession type receivers in Isaac Fruechte and Derrick Engel, who really broke out in the bowl game with 4 catches for 108 yards. These are guys that can really emerge in 2013 and it sounds as if Nelson has taken the time in the off season to work on timing with Fruechte and Engel... the kind of effort that usually pays off... in the fall.
Devon Crawford-Tufts is another guy who showed some flashes in 2012, but never broke out. He’s certainly got the speed to be a game-changing type of WR, but does he have the routes and hands to make an impact? Again, off season work with Nelson could prove to be huge with DCT, but he had a good camp last year and never really broke out in game situations. DCT will need to prove he's got game-day chops... something we won't know until the fall.
The most interesting story to watch might be Jamel Harbison. The staff and the media were very high on Harbison heading into 2012, but an injury in the opener at UNLV forced Harbison into a medical redshirt. Reports are that he looked better than expected in the first spring practice on Tuesday, but we can still expect him to be held back to some extent.
Finally, is it possible that you’ll see some youngsters who had QB in front of their name during their recruiting process see some reps at WR this spring? Donovahn Jones won’t join the team until the fall, but Chris Streveler is a highly touted QB prospect who will compete for QB1, but if he doesn’t win the job he might be too athletic to keep on the sidelines. I wouldn't be surprised to see him catch a ball or two during the spring workouts.
Because of Harbison's injury, and the rotating nature of spring units and combinations, the Gophers will break spring camp without solid answers at WR, but it will certainly be fun to see who begins to set themselves apart throughout the practice session.
When it comes to being named QB1, does Nelson have anything to worry about?
After starting seven games in 2012, including the bowl game vs Texas Tech, Nelson has to be the odds on favorite to win the job. Nelson is toeing the company line by saying that the competition is open, but it would take an incredible couple of camps by someone else, or an awful couple of camps by No.9 himself, for him to not be QB1 on opening day.
This was the off-season we thought we were going to see a real QB competition. Let's be honest, Nelson never should have seen the field last year, but injuries forced the coaching staff’s hand, and once you burn the redshirt to play a kid like Nelson, you keep playing him. The coaching staff absolutely did the right thing in handing him the reigns for the rest of the season.
But everything resets now, and if you’ll recall, heading into 2012 there were a lot of folks who believed that Mitch Leidner was the better of the two true freshman QB’s when fall camp broke. Clearly by the time somebody had to lead the team Nelson had differentiated himself, but the point is that Leidner has been around the program as long as Nelson has (both enrolled at UMN a semester early in order to take part in practices last spring) and has been progressing behind the scenes while Nelson was judged publicly before our eyes.
The biggest difference between Nelson & Leidner is in the area of leadership. By all accounts Nelson took his role as team leader very seriously in the off season, scheduling one-on-one sessions with each of his WR's to work on routes and timing.
Lastly, we can't forget to add the previously mentioned Chris Streveler to the mix, who is the prototypical QB to run the Kill/Limegrover offense, and whom also enrolled a semester early so that he could take part in spring drills this year.
We likely won't get an official answer during spring drill on whether or not Nelson has anything to worry about, but chances are we'll see the writing on the wall.
Will the Offensive Line finally gel in 2013?
The Minnesota offensive line is just an embarrassment of riches. Or at least it should be.
You’ve got kids like Ed & Tommy Olson, Zach Mottla, Caleb Bak and Zac Epping who are veteran guys, you’ve got kids like Jonah Pirsig, Ben Lauer and Isaac Hayes (SHAFT!) who were given the luxury of redshirting in 2012, and you’ve even got a very highly regarded Center coming in as a transfer from Ohio State in Brian Bobek.
The Gopher offensive lines that dominated opposing defenses of the Mason years gave way to small, young, inexperienced and injury-plagued offensive lines in the Brewster years. Even last year the Gophers dealt with a lot of shuffling along the O-line due to injury and chemistry issues.
Heading into 2013 it seems like the days of big, talented, local, steady, bruising offensive lines might be back in Dinkytown. Nothing will be solidified during spring ball, as the coaching staff will get these guys playing together in as many combinations and different positions as possible to prepare for the fall, but their continued development and mentoring of the recruits entering the program will be huge this spring and fall.
The redshirt freshmen will get plenty of reps this spring, first because Ed Olson and Mottla are out with injuries, and second because the coaching staff needs to know how these guys will fit into different schemes in the fall.
Again, the Gophers aren't going to break camp with a starting O-Line in place, but the spring is about figuring out how the new guys fit with the schemes and others around them, so look for lots of combinations and position shifting this spring.
Those are just three questions worth exploring during this off-season reprieve. Keep in mind that all spring practices are open to the public, so we've all got a chance to form our speculative opinions about how things will look heading into the fall.