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A score was kept on the scoreboard, with the defense scoring points for getting off the field, creating turnovers, etc. The offense scored points for touchdowns and field goals, but was also awarded a single point for each first down. Points were lost for penalties and mistakes, as well.
At the end of the practice, the score was all knotted up at 26-26. Head coach Jerry Kill said put the ball down at the 25-yard line. The first unit to post a point would win the game. On the second snap, freshman quarterback Philip Nelson went back to pass, looking for wide receiver CJ Cesario. A pass interference penalty gave the offense a first down and the victory, setting off a small celebration amongst the white-clad offense, which by virtue of their victory should be dressed in maroon by the time Tuesday’s next practice rolls around.
“The big thing was, that was probably as good a competition (as we’ve had) with how we set it up,” Kill said. “I thought the kids had fun. They played with passion. There’s certainly a lot of film and football to be learned from. There weren’t a lot of mistakes, which was certainly an improvement.”
With the week of practice now completed, the Gophers will have a quick turnaround for a very important date Saturday. The team will get a few hours of sleep and then meet at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex at 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning, before boarding a bus and ultimately a jet to head for Jacksonville, Fla. to attend Gary Tinsley’s funeral.
“We’ll go to the funeral and celebrate Gary’s life,” Kill said. “It will be a tough day for our kids. I think they rallied hard. I think what they did tonight was incredible. We’ll have to go in there and support Gary’s family. Gary stood for a tremendous amount of good things. He left a legacy that we all have to live up to.”
The Gophers will return to the practice field Tuesday at 3:15 p.m. at the Gibson-Nagurski Complex. As usual, practice will be open to the public.
Watch Today's Video on YouTube | Jerry Kill (4/12) |
So, we’ve established there are big shoes to fill – literally and figuratively – at the wide receiver position heading into the 2012 season. Throughout the spring, Brandon Green – the lone senior in the wide receiver group with any playing experience in collegiate football – has been working to step up and help fill the void left by McKnight. He has also been trying to help a relatively young group of pass-catchers to step up and help him with that task.
“I just gotta come in and try to do what (McKnight) did last year,” Green said. “I need to get the underclassmen to step up with me, so we can make plays for the offense and win some games.”
One of those underclassmen is Devin Crawford-Tufts. The young speedster got a taste of making a few plays last season as a true freshman. He turned in a 100-yard receiving game vs. Iowa and saw action in nine games.
“I feel like everything’s getting a lot better,” Crawford-Tufts said of his first spring practice experience. “I’m just trying to come out and do my job, make sure I’m in the right spot for the quarterbacks. I feel like it’s getting a lot better.”
The task of preparing Minnesota’s wide receivers to pull down aerials from MarQueis Gray, block downfield for the running backs, etc. belongs to Pat Poore. His group has certainly worked hard to improve throughout the 10 practices Minnesota has held to this point.
“I really like our work ethic,” Poore said. “We’re busting our tail ends to get better as a unit. I think skill-wise, the winter conditioning with Coach Klein … we’re faster, we’re more sudden. We’ve got some young guys who are still learning some things. The guys who were here know the offense now. I see them getting better at some technical things. I think that’s something we’re better at. The thing we still haven’t proven, that we have to find … is guys who can go up and make a play. But overall, I’ve been very pleased with where we’re at as a unit.”
Some other key names to keep an eye on throughout the remainder of the spring among the wide-outs: Malcolm Moulton – junior caught 14 passes for 174 yards last season; Marcus Jones – sophomore hauled in nine balls for 142 yards before suffering a knee injury mid-way through the season; Isaac Fruechte – sophomore transferred from Rochester Community and Technical College and has prototypical wide receiver size and speed; junior Victor Keise and AJ Barker both have solid hands, but haven’t had many game opportunities to show their skills.
Watch Today's Video on YouTube | Michael Amaefula (4/10) |
Minnesota returns a bevy of young, but somewhat experienced, defensive linemen. However, the first order of business will be to replace Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey, who each started all 12 games last season at the two inside positions.
“AJ and BK both graduated this past year and were two solid players for us,” said sophomore Cameron Botticelli, who is one of the youngsters who saw action last year in a backup role and is now vying for one the positions to replace the departed seniors. “However, there are a lot of young guys, both coming in and already here in the program, working with us here in the spring. Competition breeds success and when you have multiple guys fighting for spots, the heat gets turned up and you ultimately get better play.”
Botticelli and junior Ra’Shede Hageman are the front-runners to take over those inside positions so far this spring. But junior Eric Jacques and true freshman Scott Ekpe have both performed well in the spring, as well. The Gophers will also be adding a junior college defensive tackle in Roland Johnson when fall camp rolls around.
At the defensive end position, people both inside and outside the program are concerned with generating a pass rush. Minnesota had just nine sacks in 2010 and more-than doubled that number to 19 last season. But that was still only good enough for No. 86 in the nation and No. 10 in the conference.
“There are two main things (to focus on),” sophomore Michael Amaefula said. “Keep your feet moving and your hands going. We’re always doing drills to get fast hands so you can disengage the offense when they put their hands on you. So you can get them out of the way, get to the quarterback and just finish.”
Amaefula saw a great deal of action as a true freshman last season, along with red-shirt freshman Ben Perry. D.L. Wilhite is one of the few seniors on the defensive line this season and Thieren Cockran red-shirted last year. All four have been in heavy rotation with the first two units this spring.
Amaefula echoed Botticelli’s sentiments about competition making the defensive line better in 2012.
“Everybody’s competing for a spot,” he said. “Nothing is guaranteed. That’s how teams get better, is when you’re a competitive team. We’re coming out here now and everybody is on an even playing field. It’s a lot more fun and we’re building a team closer and we’re getting a lot better.”
Watch Today's Video on YouTube | Jerry Kill (4/5) |
“The spring has been a learning process, building off last-season,” Gray said. “(I want to) become a better leader for this team as well as to the younger quarterbacks. That’s one of the main things I’m focusing on.”
Head coach Jerry Kill is on record calling Gray his unquestioned starter as the team goes into spring ball. He will most likely hold that position heading into fall camp as well. But there are very capable quarterbacks behind him. Max Shortell gained valuable experience in relief last season, even starting two games when Gray was injured.
“(Spring practice) is going pretty good,” Shortell said. “Our team is really coming along. We’re making tremendous strides this spring. My goals are to compete with MarQueis and play as much as I can this year. I want to push MarQueis as much as I can.”
In addition to Shortell, red-shirt freshman Dexter Foreman continues to make strides. Meanwhile, two true freshmen graduated high school early so they could enroll at the U and take part in spring practice. Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner are both picking things up well, according to Gray.
“They’ve done really well,” Gray said. “Philip Nelson has been thrown in there a bunch of times during the team drills and Mitch (Leidner) has been getting in there in 7-on-7. They’ve just been capitalizing on the plays they’ve been getting.”
As a group, both Gray and Shortell feel there is a special group of guys in the quarterback meeting room.
“We have quarterbacks who are able to make plays,” Gray said. “When the pass down the field is not open, we have guys who can run the ball and keep the chains moving.”“The five of us, we really get along pretty well, which is surprising since we have competition going on,” Shortell said. “But that’s on the field. Off the field, we’re all good buddies.”
Football is a game of inches. The game is often won in the trenches, along the offensive line. These guys are the biggest specimens on the field and are the strength and the backbone of an offense.
Minnesota’s group up front this spring returns 15 players from last fall, seven of whom either started or saw action along the line. Junior Ed Olson returns with the most experience on the line (18 career starts) at left tackle. Olson says the group as a whole has worked hard during the winter and early spring, but they can get better every day
“Like Coach (Kill) said today, as a group we need to get better each and every day,” Olson said. “We did it during the winter workouts and now into spring ball we just need to compete every day like it’s a game. We are all good friends on and off the field, which makes us work that much harder.
Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Matt Limegrover directs this young and talented group and says the guys he is working with are all capable of getting on the field this fall. He has been very happy with their work ethic since the end of last season.
“The group of 15 guys I have are all very tough competitors and they have competitiveness in them,” Limgrover said. “The best five will play for us and it is a matter of who is producing the most and who is the most consistent.”
Other notable linemen that were a key last season along with Olson were: Zac Epping, Jimmy Gjere Caleb Bak, Tommy Olson and Marek Lenkiewicz. Along with the elder Olson anchoring the blind side of the offensive line, this group combined for 33 starts last season. Gjere started the first five games of the season at right tackle, before missing the rest of the season with an injury. He has shown great signs of improvement and may be ready for the fall. In the meantime, red-shirt freshman Josh Campion – who missed all of last season with an injury – is filling in admirably at right tackle.
Offensive linemen aren’t usually noticed, as fans and media pay more attention to the so-called “skill” players like quarterbacks, running backs or receivers. The stats sheet at the end of the game doesn’t include any stats about offensive linemen. But what makes a group of offensive linemen special is it is a group that sticks together and plays well together. At the end of the day, this group usually only cares about one statistic and that is getting the W.
“They all like being around each other,” Limgrover said. “They all are a very close group and they enjoy being o-linemen, which is the important thing. The guys are a tight knit group and they are learning every day.”
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