MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers players know the drill now, which is perhaps why Friday’s practice — the first of fall camp — felt so business-like.
Head coach Jerry Kill is now in his fourth season, so everyone on the roster except the freshmen know what to expect from this coaching staff. And Kill and his cohorts know how to best lead the troops, having led this team to an improved record in each of their first three seasons.
"Each year, you get farther along. These kids have been working all summer," Kill said after the first practice wrapped up at the Gibson-Nagurski Complex after lightning forced the team to move indoors. "We’re a lot farther along on the first day than we’ve been, just because they’ve been through it before."
Helping the cause is the fact that the Gophers enter camp with a clear-cut No. 1 starter at quarterback, something that has been lacking the last few years. A year ago, sophomore Philip Nelson was battling with then-redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner for the starting job. Because of that, there was somewhat of a leadership void at the position.
While Nelson eventually won out after playing a handful of games as a true freshman in 2012, Leidner later took over for a period as the No. 1 signal caller. This past winter, Nelson announced he was leaving the program and transferred to Rutgers, opening the door for Leidner to assume the starting job for good.
It was then when the Gophers players knew they had a leader in Leidner.
"Everyone’s just excited. Now we’ve got the one leader in Mitch, knowing that he’s going to do all the extra work to make sure we get that next step," said redshirt sophomore tight end Maxx Williams. "Working together all summer with the same group of guys all summer long really helped out. Now, getting to camp where we can go out there and work and put the pads on come Sunday and start building our team, it gets everyone all excited knowing what we can do this year."
Leidner went through spring practices as the No. 1 quarterback, but this will be his first fall camp taking all of his reps with the top offense. Though he threw two interceptions Friday in 11-on-11 drills — including one to defensive lineman Harold Legania, who jumped in front of a screen pass — it’s clear that Leidner has control of the huddle, and his teammates have his back.
"It feels good. Guys look up to me. It feels a lot different than last year, that’s for sure," Leidner said. "I’ve got a little bit of breathing room, but at the same time there’s a lot of competition here at every position. . . . I feel ready for it. I’m ready to just take this team and roll with it all the way through camp and into the season."
Williams feeling 100 percent: A knee injury kept Williams out of most of the team’s practices this spring, but the 6-foot-4, 250-pound redshirt sophomore was running all over the field Friday with no limitations.
That’s good news for Minnesota, as Williams finished the 2013 season as the the leading receiver with 25 catches for 417 yards and five touchdowns. He’s expected to be an integral part of the Gophers’ offense again in 2014, and Leidner has already established Williams as a go-to target.
"I feel 100 percent. I’m ready for the season. It kind of took too long, all these meetings all week, like, ‘Come on, let’s just start practicing,’" Williams said Friday. "I was feeling pretty good in spring ball, and then all summer just working out, strengthening, everything. Every day, just feeling great."
Williams, a graduate of Waconia (Minn.) High School, redshirted in 2012 and made an immediate impact last year, catching a touchdown pass in his first game. With the Gophers looking for a wide receiver to emerge as a reliable target, Minnesota already knows it has at least one in Williams.
"He’s going to have a huge year," Leidner said of Williams. "He’s a great player to have on offense. Like I’ve said before, he’s a matchup nightmare for a linebacker, or defensive back for that matter. He’s too big and too fast for guys to cover."
Edwards impresses early: Although running back Berkley Edwards took a redshirt last year in his first season on campus, his name still popped up as a guy who could make an impact with the Gophers offense. The younger brother of former NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards possesses game-changing speed unlike anyone else in Minnesota’s backfield.
On Friday, he put some of that speed on display — and also showed he could be a threat in the passing game. Edwards made several catches in the flat in 11-on-11 drills and turned upfield to gain big yardage. As Minnesota continues to look for a playmaker on offense, it may have to look no further than Edwards.
"A huge weapon," Leidner said. "He’s really fast. It’s tough for guys to try and cover him when he’s going out for a pass. It’s tough for guys to make a play on him in open space when he gets the ball. He’s definitely a great weapon to have on offense."
Edwards will have to work his way up the depth chart, as there are currently three running backs ahead of him who all have Division I experience. Still, Minnesota will do what it can to work the redshirt freshman into the offense.