Coaches will often sell hype to fans in order to create buzz around a football program. The football coaching staff at the University of Minnesota doesn’t need to use their best sales pitch after their product steps out onto the field this season. Saturday marked the first full-contact practice of the Golden Gophers fall training camp and it will be the last open to the public or media.
The reason head coach Jerry Kill and the rest of the coaches can tone down their promotion of the program, is the fact that fans can see the difference in the athletes the program has recruited and built up over the last couple years. Size, strength, and speed are obvious improvements in all aspects of the Gophers game.
More than 3,000 fans showed up at TCF Bank Stadium for the scrimmage on a beautiful night in Minneapolis. All of those fans were treated to a sneak preview of what Gophers football will look like under coach Kill and his cohorts in their third season. Led by sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson, the first-string Minnesota offense looked strong and Nelson showed some progress after some early camp woes.
In Nelson’s hip pocket on the opening drive was running back Donnell Kirkwood. The bruising power rusher leads a deep group of serviceable tailbacks out of the backfield. Kirkwood saw carries along with Rodrick Williams Jr., David Cobb, Cole Banham and Berkley Edwards on the day.
Though the passing game was mostly highlighted during the scrimmage, the backs did their job and were rarely sent backwards on a play. The power rushing game will be the table setter all season for the Maroon and Gold as they look to wear down opposing defenses. What the team does next after that, could make or break the season. One option that flashed for the fans was Edwards and his elite speed.
The freshmen from Novi, Mich. was a multiple state champion track star in high school and he broke-off a 70-yard touchdown run on his first carry of the evening. At 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, Edwards made just one cut through a solid hole from the offensive line and blasted down the middle of the field towards paydirt. The elite speed he showed, was unlike anything Gopher crowds have seen within the confines of TCF Bank Stadium. That talent alone is a positive sign for the future of the Gophers in the Big Ten.
Pair that speed with the size and strength of the rest of the running backs and opposing defenses will have their hands full with one position. The running backs are not the only group that can run. The quarterback stable at Minnesota will not just sit in the pocket all season and rely on the improved offensive line to buy them time. They will run and do so effectively.
Defensive coordinators from around the conference would be hard pressed to make a choice of who they would rather see running the football for Minnesota under center. Nelson, along with redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and true freshman Chris Streveler all like to run the football and did so well Sat.
The trio was not included in the tackle portion of the practice, but did put together some solid runs against the defense on the day. Nelson was the best with his arm, but Leidner and Streveler were dangerous with their feet in open territory. That athleticism is what the program hoped to get out of former quarterback MarQueis Gray the last four years, but injuries and constant movement between quarterback and wide receiver, stunted his growth at the position.
Arguably the next quarterback in line after following the three others is Donovahn Jones. Another true freshman who saw time as a passer in the scrimmage, but also split out as a wide receiver and was tested at the position for the first time during the fall. Jones was strong on his routes for the most part, but could not pull down the big catch. Another example of young versatile talent that can be used to help build the future of the program.
On the defensive side of the football, the Gophers have confidence. Led by very talented players like Ra’Shede Hageman, Brock Vereen, and Derrick Wells, the Gophers will likely be set up well on offense, thanks to an above average defense. Vereen and Wells did not participate in the scrimmage Saturday, due to lingering injuries. Hageman saw action for roughly the first series and stood out. His strength at the defensive tackle position is another layer to the improvement the program has seen athletically across the board.
In addition to that big three on defense, the stoppers of the team also have some fresh faces that stick out on the field. Redshirt sophomore De’Vondre Campbell looks out of place. At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, the junior college transfer stalks the field at the linebacker position. He constantly stood as the tallest player down the field, except when freshman tight end Nate Wozniak was out there at 6-foot-9 and tipping the scales at 258 pounds. Campbell’s size alone should be an intimidating presence in the heads of opposing quarterbacks for the next few years.
Up front on the defensive line, freshmen Hendrick Ekpe and Demaris Peppers played well and helped hold the line up as part of the second and third groups. Rookie linebacker Chris Wipson from nearby Wayzata made the game’s only interception. Also new this season, junior college transfer Damien Wilson will be relied upon heavily at the biggest weak spot in the defense, linebacker. The reigning National Defensive Player of the Year according to NationalUnderclassmen.com looked comfortable stepping right into action for Minnesota.
The evening scrimmage was opposite a rigorous morning special teams practice that was not open to the public at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. Coach Kill talked after the scrimmage about the positives that came out of it and said that, “Chris (Hawthorne) had a good day today. (Andrew) Harte, a young man from Chicago, he really kicked well today and the big kid has a little bit of a sore leg, so we’ll kick him on Monday more, but he has an explosive leg.”
The big kid with the explosive leg he was referring to is freshman kicker/punter Ryan Santoso. A 6-foot-5, 260 pounder who in most kicking circles stands out amongst a generally smaller position on the field. Just another example of the size and strength that Kill and company has been able to recruit to the Gophers.
A classic term that is used often in recruiting and evaluating talent is the “eye test”. Looking at the product that Minnesota sent out for the scrimmage Saturday evening, they passed. That excludes other talented starters like offensive lineman Ed Olson (flu) and wide receiver Jamel Harbison (hamstring) who did not play in the simulated game.
Mix in strong play from other players like Theiren Cockran, Grayson Levine, K.J. Maye, and Andre McDonald and the Golden Gophers should have themselves a stronger team on paper over years past. A tough Big Ten schedule awaits after a fairly easy non-conference slate, so Minnesota should hope to use that new found speed, strength, and size to make a run at another bowl berth and maybe a signature win or two versus ranked competition this season.