Just like the spring game, the afternoon and weather was perfect for the only public scrimmage of the fall practice session, and the last scrimmage or practice open to the public. JDMill and I had a few barley pops Saturday afternoon at Stub & Herbs before heading over to TCF Bank Stadium. Interesting touch this year as the only open gate was at the Lake of the Woods entrance, one the fan's never get to use; It's a long, open tunnel that the players and stadium workers use that goes right down to field level. The Gophers used the home sideline and had a roped-off area behind them where people could stand, and also allowed folks to sit where the band usually sits in the student section end zone, as well as to stand on the visitor's sideline. Otherwise, just about everybody moved up into the stands on the home side, occupying seats between the 20's. We guess-timated a couple of thousand Maroon-and-Gold-clad fans were in attendance, and they got to see a pretty good show. JD and I took a seat in about row 16 right on the 30 behind his uncle Dave and his buddy Brad, both of whom have had Gopher tickets forever (Dave and his group have had season tickets since the Dome opened).
Not much in the way of X's and O's to break down as the Gophers' offense- as would be expected- went pretty vanilla. No Golden-I, not even down around the goal line. I know, I know we were bummed too, but clearly Coach Kill didn't feel the need to scare the pants off any opponents who may be watching in a scrimmage, so the unveiling of the Golden-I will have to wait for UNLV. There were a few projected starters who sat either due to injuries or precautionary, so it wasn't the likely starting 22 we'll see Aug 29. Then again, with still more than two weeks to go, even the guys we have projected as starters now may change by then. Let's go position by position for some uneducated over-analysis, shall we?
Philip Nelson is the clear starter here, taking every snap with the 1st team. As you've no doubt read by now, either from Joe Christensen of the Strib or Nate Sandell of 1500 ESPN or others, Nelson looked really good early. He went 6-6 on the first two drives, including a long opening touchdown drive that culminated with a short TD pass to KJ Maye (more on him in a minute). Nelson made good decisions- and quickly- throwing the ball, and also had a few nice runs (the caveat on his runs- and all the QB's- is that he couldn't be tackled, so he was called down as soon as a defender got a hand on him).
Mitch Leidner was the clear #2, and as the other recaps have surely mentioned, the second group didn't move the ball that well all day. The blame or failings for that shouldn't fall entirely at Leidner's feet, though. He didn't turn the ball over, and showed a lot more athleticism running the ball than you'd expect (or at least than I expected) for a guy of his size. Some credit for the second unit's failings has to go to the second team defense, and perhaps that group is further along and/or stronger than the second team offense. Just watching it in person, that was my take away. It's also quite possible the second team skill position guys just aren't that strong.
In the end though, Nelson and Leidner are your clear top two guys. True freshmen Chris Streveler and Donovahn Jones looked exactly like true freshmen trying to run the third team offense; Their passing and decision-making weren't great, though they both looked good running the ball. Streveler had the QB scramble of the day with a long run down the far sidelines that may have gone for six. He was called down after 15 or so yards because a defender got a hand on him, but in a live game I think a hand is all the defender would have gotten. Jones had a couple of nice runs, including one cut back that few running backs, let alone QB's, could make at this level. Which brings us to the largest takeaway with Jones...
...they need to get him on the field this season. Not as a QB- he proved he's not ready for that yet- but they need to find ways to get the ball in his hands. We just don't see someone with his speed and moves very often at Minnesota, and the thing I didn't realize? He's 6'3! He moves and runs like a KJ Maye, but he's 6'3! In the 2nd half of practice we got to see Jones split out wide, and while he didn't run a ton of routes, they sent him deep twice, and both times he made a play. On the first one he made a nice adjustment on the throw and would have made the catch had the defensive back (can't remember the number, somebody help me here) not grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him down before the ball got there. The second one he made the catch despite getting roughed up and pushed out of bounds on a tough catch.
He's got the size, he's got the speed and moves, and he showed he's got the hands to be a factor. Not saying he's going to be an all-conference performer as a true freshman or even the team's best receiver, but he could provide something the offense currently lacks- a true deep threat. As you might expect, this isn't news to the coaches. They promised him a chance to play QB when they recruited him and thus far they've been true to their word, but they're also showing him that while he might want to play quarterback right now, his best chance to see the field in 2013 is going to be at receiver.
The rest of the group was ok but underwhelming. Jamel Harbison was kept out as a precaution, so we'll have to wait for the UNLV game to see how he's recovered, and hopefully to see all that promise he showed as a true freshman last summer. KJ Maye was the most noticeable, and it looks as though the coaches are going to try to get the ball in his hands more often, and in a variety of ways. Last year he split time as a running back and slot back, while this season he's committed full-time to receiver, and even split out wide a few times. Issac Fruechte had one big catch on the opening drive, and Derek Engel had a few grabs, but neither of them really stood out. Again, it's a scrimmage, and the offense was very vanilla, but the receivers seemed just kind of meh. Andre McDonald got a lot of reps with the second team, and you can definitely see him pushing for time as he gets back into football shape. Heck, Victor Keise even had a few catches and had a ton of reps with the 1st and 2nd team.
Two other true freshmen had nice debuts in Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky. Carter is a bit undersized at 5'11 and not a traditional burner, but he got a bunch of reps with the two's and at least on this day, looked pretty good. If memory serves Wolitarksy got most of his reps with the threes, but caught every thrown to him, which is about what we expected based on his recruitment. With Harbison sitting I'm not sure if one or both redshirt this year, but they had promising showings on this day at least. And honestly I'm done trying to predict who the best of the bunch is going to be. I mean, at this time last year could you have guessed the team's two leading receivers in 2012 would be AJ Barker and Derek Engel? Not so much. Could be Engel and Fruechte as expected, or Keise, McDonald or who even knows. The only thing I can say with confidence is it won't be AJ Barker. I think.
Might as well start with Berkley Edwards. Yes, he had a 70+ yd TD run right up the gut, found the seam, and broke away from the secondary. He's fast. Definitely the fastest back on the team, and shows the speed and burst we haven't seen in a back since the Mason years. He even ran pretty well between the tackles. Edwards was exactly as advertised- against the third team. Now we need to hope he can do this against second and eventually first team defenses the next few weeks of practice. I'm excited, but he didn't get a single rep with the first or second team, so for now it's cautious optimism. First and second team reps went to Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Nugget Williams, and David Cobb (I believe James Gillum was held out due to injury). Kirkwood ran the first two series and then we didn't see him again, giving some of the other guys a chance to show their stuff since "Kirkland" Kirkwood has the starting gig locked up. Cobb ran quite a bit with the ones, and while he didn't have any big runs, he didn't look out of place either. Kill has been open about Williams needing to improve his pass blocking to get more playing time, and it looks like Cobb will get opportunities to take those reps.
TIGHT ENDS/FULL BACKS
Not a ton of catches for this group, but definitely got an idea who the coaches like right now. Maxx Williams looked the part, and certainly didn't look out of place running with the ones. It was him, Drew Goodger, Lincoln Plesk and Alex Bisch. We know the latter three guys can play from last year, and Williams shows real potential to contribute in the passing game. True freshman Nate Wozniak stood out both because he's really, REALLY tall, and unfortunately because he was dropping passes. Thankfully they look just fine at tight end so he can redshirt and figure it out. The only thing almost as disappointing as not getting to see the Golden-I was that redshirt freshman full back Tyler Hartmann changed his number from 69 to 43. A wasted opportunity if you ask me. Starter Mike Henry looked great blocking, and even had a couple of catches out of the backfield. Small, vanilla sample size I know, but I feel good about tight ends and full backs after seeing them Saturday.
Last but not least is the key to the offense and the key to the season. Eddie Olson did not play, just as he didn't play all spring. I know don't exactly what that means for his prospects for the season, but it's not exactly encouraging. Starters from left to right tackle were Marek Lenkiewicz- Zac Epping- Jon Christenson- Caleb Bak- Josh Campion. Christenson should be your week 1 starter at C as he got every snap with the first team, leaving Tommy Olson with the second group. The only real change with the one's that I noticed was SHAFT(!) Isaac Hayes rotated in at guard with Bak. Hayes looks WAY bigger than he did as a true freshman a season ago, and while I know I shouldn't make too big of a deal of a scrimmage, it was great to see him out there and holding his own. Campion, by the way, looks like Paul Bunyan when he takes his helmet off- just a massive dude with an even bigger beard. Very glad to have him as the starting right tackle. I didn't pay that close of attention the the second and third string lines (mostly because I have no idea what I'm looking for when watching an offensive line), but did notice big Jonah Persig off to the side working with a trainer for the entire practice. He was in full pads which has to be a good sign, but still didn't play, so not sure how much longer his knee will keep him out. Like Hayes he looks much bigger this year than last, so let's hope he'll be able to play soon.