The original plan was for the first scrimmage of spring camp to be held under the lights at TCF Bank Stadium on Friday night. Mother Nature, however, had different plans. With a fresh batch of snow covering the ground outside, the Gophers took to Rod Wallace Field inside the Gibson-Nagurski Complex for the contest. Despite the chilly conditions outdoors, the competition quickly heated up.
Redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner stole the show early, spreading the ball around to a myriad of receivers, including a sideline connection to KJ Maye for a big gain. Later on, Leidner found Victor Keise in the back of the end zone from about 10 yards out. In the end, the Lakeville South product completed an impressive 9 of 11 passes with the one touchdown. Quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski was pleased with the young quarterback’s performance.
“I was really happy with Mitch. He had a couple of mental errors, a little emotion, but I really thought he did a great job of getting us down the field. He was composed and made some good throws. I’m really excited about him”
He also made some noise with his legs. The freshman QB finished with five carries for a handful of yards. During one of the early series, Leidner drifted slowly towards the boundary, searching for an open target. When none came available, he pulled the ball down and weaved his way to pay dirt, opening the scoring for the scrimmage. Offensive Coordinator Matt Limegrover took notice of Leidner’s dual-threat showing.
“He’s a great example of a guy that if you just looked at the stopwatch you would not think he was a very good runner,” said LImegrover. “Mitch is that rare case that when he puts the pads on he maintains if not gets a little better. I can’t quite explain it but he knew that in order to be in our offense he was going to have to run better and be more athletic and I give him credit because I think he’s worked on it and it’s showing.”
Another player that impressed early was junior running back David Cobb. The Killeen, Texas native broke free for a would-be 40 yard touchdown but the play was brought back on a holding call in the open field. Cobb didn’t let that slow him down, punching into the end zone from the goal line to officially pick up a score later. Despite last year’s leading rusher Donnell Kirkwood not participating, the entire running back corps had an impressive showing. Cobb, Rodrick Williams, James Gillum and Cole Banham all found their way into the secondary to break off big gains. Limegrover talked later about the play he saw from his group of ball carriers.
“Obviously it isn’t a complete game situation but it’s tackling and blocking and those types of things. It was a great opportunity to up the reps,” Limegrover continued, “and be able to start to call that herd a little bit and say these are the ones that we can count on.”
The defensive players weren’t going to let the offense have all the fun Friday night, though. The unit started the scrimmage off with a few three-and-outs and from then on could be found in the backfield at various points throughout the night giving the quarterbacks fits. Lamonte Edwards, Alex Keith and Jephte Matilus were among those who recorded sacks, though the quarterbacks were not allowed to be taken down. Then, near the end of the night Damarius Travis and James Manuel combined on a crushing blow to stop Rodrick Williams in his tracks short of the goal line, which, considering the sophomore running back’s 5’11”, 228 pound frame, is a pretty impressive accomplishment. Defensive Coordinator Tracy Claeys came away impressed with the physicality he witnessed.
“This is the first day we’ve tackled,” Claeys said. “I think we’re playing more physical. We’ve had some collisions and done some things that haven’t happened since we got here. All of that is positive, we just have to be more consistent with it.”
At this time last year, quarterback Philip Nelson was worried about learning the cadence in his first spring practice. Receivers Derrick Engel and Isaac Fruechte last played college football games for Winona State and Rochester Community and Technical College, respectively. Jamel Harbison and KJ Maye were still in high school. Devin Crawford-Tufts was coming off a true freshman season with the Gophers where he caught eight passes for 156 yards.
After a crash-course in chemistry last year, everyone involved looks for an improved passing game for the Gophers this fall.
“Last year we were all kind of getting the feel for one another,” said Nelson. “This year I can definitely feel the improvement. It is a process.”
“It is more comfortable knowing that I am going to be playing receiver,” said Maye, who was a quarterback in high school and began his collegiate career as a running back. “I know the offense better now and have my coach and teammates helping me. I was kind of nervous last year.”
“I feel more comfortable right now in the offense,” said Fruechte.
“Last year I kind of figured everything out,” said Crawford-Tufts. “Now I know what to expect when I get into the game. We are definitely building a relationship and a bond with one another.”
Fruechte (19 catches) and Engel (375 yards) are the leading returning receivers this year.
“They got length and they both can run,” said head coach Jerry Kill.
“Derrick is kind of the smaller slot guy, but can really run,” said Fruechte. “I am a little bit bigger and like to think that I can run too. I think we compliment each other really well. He can make some moves on people on the inside and I think I have a good shot on the outside.”
Add in the elusiveness of Maye, the speed of Crawford-Tufts and the efficiency of a now-healthy Harbison and the Gophers should be able to spread the ball around this year.
“All our guys have improved,” said Kill. “Fruechte has had a good camp. Crawford-Tufts and Engel have played well. KJ Maye has really excelled. You throw Jamel in there and it will be a good thing. Everyone is a year older. I think that is the whole thing with the entire group, everyone is a year older.”
Harbison was a starter as a true freshman in the season-opening game at UNLV last year, but saw his season quickly end as he suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Rebels. The redshirt freshman began spring practice wearing a green jersey, which means he could participate in limited contact. However, in the last two practices, Harbison has been in a white jersey, meaning there are no restrictions on him.
“The training staff has been doing a great job with me,” said Harbison, who said he researched injuries suffered by NFL players Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy and NFL legend Jerry Rice while he was out. “I feel like I am progressing every practice and think I will be at the top of my game next season. The injury was my first major injury and that was the first time I was without football. It was difficult, but my teammates and family were there for me. The rehab was hard, but having that year off helped me learn the playbook better. Rehab was practice for me, so I came in with the mindset to get better every day.”
His perseverance to return to form has not gone unnoticed.
“He came in last year and was an unbelievable talent,” said Nelson of Harbison. “He had the injury, but has handled it great. He is back out here and does not look hesitant at all. He is running great routes and does not even look like he had an injury.”
“Spring” has seemed like anything but its name so far in Minnesota. Days after snow and wind delayed a Gopher home baseball game, the weather has continued to push back the Minnesota football team’s move to outdoor practice. The Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex has served as home base for all the practices so far this spring.
By this point in 2012, the Gophers were able to work outside. Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson, who participated in last year’s practices as an early enrollee, knows there is nothing he can do to change the weather, but looks forward to more seasonal temperatures.
“We want to be able to enjoy the outdoors and get over to our home stadium,” he said.
Junior wide receiver Isaac Fruechte does not mind being indoors for now because it keeps him out of the cold. But playing inside four walls and a roof does not have the same feel as the open environment where the Gophers will play their games.
“I’m pretty excited about getting outside,” Fruechte said. “Minnesota weather is beautiful. I’d love to get out there and get playing with the wind and everything, all the elements.”
The Gophers originally intended to practice at TCF Bank Stadium last Saturday, but rain and cold forced them to stay indoors. Today’s practice was the seventh of the spring.
“I think sometimes it gets to be a little bit of a grind with it being so hot, but otherwise I think it’s gone really well,” Fruechte said. “We’re playing well and the coaches seem pretty happy.”
The Gophers might welcome a change of scenery, but they know that a football field is a football field, no matter the location. The main goal is to improve as much as possible during the final eight spring practice sessions.
“It’s limited space in here, obviously, but at the same time, there’s no excuse for not getting our work done,” Nelson said. “Coach Kill makes sure of it, and we’re on the right track.”
Weather permitting, the Gophers may get outside by the end of this week. They hope to practice at TCF Bank Stadium at 7 p.m. on Friday night.