MINNEAPOLIS — Saturday finally felt like spring, and the beautiful weather in Minnesota came just in time for the Gophers football team’s spring game at TCF Bank Stadium. Coach Jerry Kill split his team into two groups —maroon and white— and they played four 15-minute quarters. Led by the first-team offense, the maroon squad emerged with a 24-17 victory.
Five things we learned in the Gophers’ 2013 spring game:
1. The starting quarterback job is Philip Nelson’s to lose.
Nelson took over as the Gophers’ starter midway through the 2012 season as a true freshman. Because of his game experience, he entered spring game as the team’s No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart. Saturday, he played like a starter. The sophomore completed 13 of 17 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, including a perfect 10-for-10 first half.
Nelson didn’t throw many deep passes — his longest was a 39-yard strike to wide receiver Derrick Engel early in the fourth quarter that set up a short touchdown pass to Engel two plays later. Still, he and the first-team offense were able to move the ball well all afternoon.
“It was just really great to get out here in a game-like atmosphere and being able to have more consecutive drives and being able to really move the ball down the field like a real-life game,” Nelson said. “That helps build some momentum.”
Nelson is also not afraid to tuck the ball and run, as he showed last season. In Saturday’s spring game, he ran for 45 yards (second-most among all players) on just six carries, including a run of 20 yards.
“Somebody has to take Philip’s job,” Kill said. “Right now it’s his job. Somebody has to take it. That’s part of how you play.”
2. If someone does take Nelson’s job, it’ll be Mitch Leidner.
Leidner joined Nelson in last year’s recruiting class as two of the most highly touted high school quarterbacks in the state of Minnesota. After starring at Lakeville South High School, Leidner redshirted last year, which means he still has four years of eligibility.
On Saturday, Leidner was 9-for-15 for 112 yards and two touchdowns, including a 36-yard scoring play to a wide-open Logan Hutton in the third quarter. Leidner also connected with wide receiver Jamel Harbison for a 10-yard score to give the White team a brief 17-14 lead.
Though Nelson is the starter for now, Leidner will continue to push him in practice.
“I feel like I just keep getting closer,” Leidner said. “Obviously, Phil has that in-game experience, but I’ve just got to keep working on the little things and get better at that and just keep competing.”
Though Kill said it’s Nelson’s job to lose, he appreciates the competition Nelson is getting from Leidner and true freshman Chris Streveler, who attempted just five passes Saturday and completed three for 10 yards.
“I feel good about (Leidner), and I feel good about the development of Streveler,” Kill said. “We’ve got young guys there and feel very good about that position.”
3. The Gophers need another wide receiver to step up, and it could be Jamel Harbison.
Harbison came to the Gophers ranked as a three-star recruit by Scout.com. Kill and his staff were excited last year about the athleticism Harbison brought to the receiving corps. But just one game into his freshman year, he suffered a season-ending injury when he tore his ACL.
Harbison was granted a medical redshirt and enters the 2013 season as a redshirt freshman. Though he’s still not back 100 percent from the knee injury, he had an impressive showing Saturday. Harbison caught five passes for 52 yards and a 10-yard touchdown from Leidner.
Minnesota needs someone outside of Derrick Engel and Isaac Fruechte to emerge at the wide receiver position in 2013.
“That’s an encouraging thing,” Kill said of Harbison’s game Saturday. “He’s like a lot of these young kids, he just needs to play. He’s not at full speed right now, but it’s kind of like (former Gophers forward Trevor) Mbakwe was in basketball coming of major knee surgery. It takes a while to get back, so I’m hoping this is like the beginning of the season so when he comes back in the fall, he’ll be 100 percent. He’s worked hard.”
4. For the first time all spring, it felt good to be outside.
Thanks to the lengthy winter that just wouldn’t end, Minnesota’s players were cooped up inside for the entirety of spring camp at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. But the Gophers couldn’t have asked for better weather Saturday, as temperatures reached the 70s.
The sunshine also helped bring a good crowd to TCF Bank Stadium, as an estimated 8,500 fans took in Saturday’s scrimmage. Kill wanted Saturday to be as much like a real game as possible, and being able to play outdoors in front of a good crowd certainly helped with that.
“We had an outstanding crowd,” Kill said. “It simulates a game. … You’ve got to be able to perform under pressure, and we’ve been able to do that with our kids.”
The Gophers’ practices have been open to the public all spring, something Kill said he learned from former Detroit Lions coach Bobby Ross when Kill was at Saginaw Valley State.
“He used to open up practices when the Lions were there, and I go, ‘Why do you do that, coach?'” Kill said. “He said, ‘Players play harder when people are watching.’ I really believe that. It’s been good for us. I thank our fans and the people that have been out and supported us. It’s the most people we’ve had on an everyday basis at practice since I’ve been here.”
5. Health is still an issue for the Gophers.
Minnesota has been without several players this spring and has had several more go down during spring camp, including wide receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts and offensive lineman Jonah Pirsig. To prevent any further injuries, the Gophers didn’t play defensive linemen Ra’Shede Hageman and Michael Michael Amaefula, safety Brock Vereen and cornerback Derrick Wells on Saturday.
Kill said redshirt junior running back Cole Banham was dinged up a bit during Saturday’s spring game. Banham had eight carries for 32 yards and also caught one pass for 14 yards.
Now that spring practices are finally over, Kill said the focus for the players is to get healthy before fall camp starts.
“Our guys that are rehabbing have got to stay here and get healthy and then they’ll be back in June and go back to lifting and running,” Kill said. “We’re not that far away. We’ve done a lot of good things. We’ve worked our kids hard. We really have. … We’ve just got to get healed up now and get ready for the season.”