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If you talk to the Minnesota coaching staff about its goal for the specialists this spring there’s one word you’ll hear spoken over and over again – consistency.
The Gophers return an experienced group of specialists. Senior Jordan Wettstein and junior Chris Hawthorne are back to battle for the place-kicking duties, junior Dan Orseske will once again be in the mix at punter, and junior Jake Filkins returns to handle the long-snapping duties.
But getting more consistent performances from each of them is key to the Gophers winning in the critical “third phase” of the game on special teams. So it’s no surprise that consistency has developed in to a rather important theme for the Gophers this spring.
“To see who is consistent is the thing that we have to establish,” said assistant coach Jay Sawvel, who coordinates the Gophers’ special teams units. “Last year I think our kickers, for the most part, performed well. We were solid as a kickoff team and we were 12 of 15 for the year on field goals. What we’re trying to get right now is consistency.”
Hawthorne started last season as the Gophers’ place-kicker before an injury opened the door for Wettstein. Wettstein made the most of his opportunity and was good on all six of his field goal tries, including three from over 40 yards with a long of 51 yards.
“The kickers have had some consistency and success,” Sawvel added.” “Jordan (Wettstein) was very solid last season and that has made it a genuine competition at kicker right now. As we go through the next nine practices of the spring there’s going to be a time when we put the ball down to kick field goals and we are going to see who the most consistent guy is. It’s the same thing with kickoffs, who is going to be the most consistent. All of that is important for us to establish who that player will be and it’s going to be a battle.”
A battle is also emerging among the punters, where Orseske is the incumbent but is facing a stiff challenge from senior David Schwerman and redshirt freshman Peter Mortell. Orseske took all but two punts for the Gophers last season, but epitomizes what the coaching staff is referring to when it comes to consistency. Orseske had six punts of 50 yards or more, including a 68 yarder, but averaged just 37.0 yards per punt on the season.
“Dan (Orseske) can be a good punter, along with the guys that are competing against him,” said Sawvel. “What we need to get through to him is now is the time to be confident that he can do it. That confidence breeds consistency. “
One area that seems to be nailed down is long-snapper, with Filkins back for his junior season. He handled all punt and PAT/FG snaps for the Gophers a year ago and according to the coaching staff had an outstanding season.
For head coach Jerry Kill spring ball is all about technique and fundamentals. And like every other position the only way to improve is to work at it.
“The spring is when the work gets done,” head coach Jerry Kill said. “They’ve got to get their timing down, get their technique work done and work on their fundamentals. They’ve certainly gotten better in the last six days. In the spring we spend a lot of time on technical work and identifying who’s going to get it done on game day.”
With the graduation of workhorse Duane Bennett, running back is expected to be one of the Gophers’ more intriguing position battles in 2012. And it’s likely that the competition won’t be settled until well into preseason training camp.
Bennett, who totaled 2,126 rushing yards for his career – good for 13th all-time at Minnesota – and ranked either first or second in total carries during each of the last three seasons, had nearly three times as many attempts as any other Gopher running back last year. He also played on three different special teams units as a senior and was widely regarded as one of the team’s vocal leaders.
As the team begins to hit its stride in spring drills, running backs coach Brian Anderson is looking for backs that are ready to step in and fill the void left by Bennett, both on and off the field.
“The competition at running back will definitely go through fall camp,” Anderson said. “But the process really started a year ago when I explained to the group that Duane was the only senior we had and that they were going to have to step their games up – not just on the field but off the field – as far as being a leader, learning the offense and understanding what we are trying to do with the offense.”
The Gophers’ young stable of running backs is talented, but boasts just 74 Division I carries among them. That’s why this spring is so critical to their development.
Junior college transfer James Gillum rushed for more than 2,300 yards in two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College, while sophomore Donnell Kirkwood, who redshirted following an injury-plagued in 2010 campaign, gained 229 yards and scored three touchdowns on 63 carries last season. Sophomores David Cobb and Devon Wright combined for 11 carries and 56 yards between them as freshmen in 2011, while true freshman Rodrick Williams, from Lewisville, Texas, will join the mix in the fall.
With an offense that’s predicated on running the football, the pressure to perform will be on this group. Youth will not be an excuse once the season rolls around.
“The expectations (for the running backs) are going to be high,” said Anderson.” Our DNA is running the football. We’ve always had good running backs, and we want to continue that tradition. I think as we go on and build this program that’s what we’re going to always rely on.”
Thus far, Anderson like what he has seen from the group after a strong offseason in the weight room with head strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein. Now he’s eager to see them continue to put what they’ve learned into practice on the field. Still, Anderson said its way too early to draw any conclusions after just a handful of workouts and that the most important thing for the group is just to keep working at it.
“This early you see certain orders develop, but that is much more about who has been here a while and how much each of the players understand things,” Anderson said. “Right now we are trying to mix things up and get each of the backs with the different offensive lines combinations so that they can feel their way and see who can do what. We’re just trying to find a way to get them all reps.”
Still, Anderson knows exactly what he’s looking and whether or not one primary back emerges or if the Gophers will end up rotating the position by committee remains to be seen.
“I think the thing that makes a player stand out is his intelligence and his ability to be a play-maker,” Anderson said. “Obviously that is a big part of it, because sometimes you can’t get them all blocked. The guy who can make a guy miss and hopefully take one the distance or tear off those big 50 and 60 and 70-yard runs is key. Being consistent is a huge part of it.”
Head coach Jerry Kill said he’s pleased with the group’s development, but understands that it’s a learning process and that it will take time.
“Things are going good,” Kill said. “David Cobb played last year. James Gillum is a transfer that’s come in. Devon Wright’s a young man who’s getting better. It’s about getting better and learning what to do. I expect that crew by end of spring will all do very well.”
Golden Gopher Football on the Web:
Manuel relishes switch to a more physical role (Star Tribune)
Gopher Spring Football Photo Gallery (KFAN.com)
Rallis settling in at middle linebacker (1500 ESPN)
The Golden Gophers have a very diverse group at the Tight End/H-Back position this season.
Within the eight guys playing those two positions, there are solid pass-catchers, bigger block-first types and a guy or two are a real hybrid of the aforementioned attributes. That diversity makes it a good situation for their position coach Rob Reeves.
“You always try to recruit both,” Reeves said. “You want to have the best of both worlds. Then you start sorting it out as it goes.”
The lone senior in the group is John Rabe, who transferred to the Minnesota program from Ellsworth Community College in Iowa. Rabe caught four passes last season, but two of them went for touchdowns. With seniors Eric Lair and Collin McGarry graduating, Rabe will be expected to provide leadership and production at the position.
Reeves said Rabe is definitely one who fits into the hybrid mold. He’s physical and has good size. But he also has the athleticism to get open and catch the football. Sophomore Drew Goodger saw action as a true freshman last season, making two receptions. He’s got size and isn’t afraid to mix it up along the line of scrimmage, but has great hands as well. They are the only Gophers at the TE/HB spot who caught passes in game action last season.
“Rabe … can run and get open and make plays,” Reeves said. “That’s kind of the mold you’re looking for. Goodger … has a lot of physical pop to him. He wants to bang inside and be physical. At the same time … he has great hands and he’s learning to be a better receiver as a tight end.”
Meanwhile, two Gophers who are relatively new to the tight end position are also getting a good number of reps and a good amount of interest from fans and media during spring ball. Both bring great size, strength and athleticism to the position. Converted quarterback Moses Alipate is listed at 6-5, 280 pounds and former defensive end Kendall Gregory-McGhee is 6-5, 260. It will be interesting to see how they develop into the position.
“I’m extremely excited about how they’ve done early,” Reeves said. “They have a long ways to go. But with where they’re at, Kendall and Moses have both done a nice job of picking things up. They’re doing a good job. They’re way ahead of where I thought they would be at this point.”
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