Minnesota coach Jerry Kill sure hasn’t sweetened his assessment of the team he inherited over the four-plus months since he was hired as the latest leader of a program that’s been trying for 50 years to get back to the top of the Big Ten.
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Kill’s main goals for the Gophers these days are just to get better as students, become smarter students of the game and improve as players on the field. Mentioning the season opener at Southern California on Sept. 3 has been all but taboo.
After 14 in-your-face, intense practices over the last month, the Gophers wrapped up their NCAA-allowed allotment of organized offseason workouts with the annual spring game on Saturday afternoon.
”Change is hard. If I’m one of those kids I’m not trusting anybody. It’s hard for them,” Kill said. ”Now here comes old bald-headed coach telling them that this is the way it’s going to be. That’s hard, but I think they’ve found it pretty good to this point.”
The sky was gray and the air was chilly, a 45-degree backdrop fitting for Big Ten college football. Even with free admission, there were only a few thousand people in attendance. Spring game, this year, was a multiple misnomer. As the Star Tribune quipped inside Saturday’s sports section, this was more like a ”late winter controlled scrimmage.”
Concerned about a lack of depth compounded by recent injuries, Kill preferred to keep the annual intrasquad game as limited as possible. In the past, the Gophers used a special system to put the defense on more of an even scoring plain with the offense, but no score or time was kept this year. The fans, family members and recruits in attendance were at least able to see replays on the video board, and downs and distances were tracked.
MarQueis Gray has a firm grasp on the starting quarterback spot. He threw mostly short passes to the flat and took off running several times, a strength of his the Gophers are certain to rely on this season. Moses Alipate ran the second-team offense.
Freshman Donnell Kirkwood’s 3-yard run up the middle was the game’s only touchdown. Sophomore Chris Hawthorne, a transfer from North Carolina State, was arguably the star with made field goals from 30 and 50 yards.
With Ed Olson, Chris Bunders, Ryan Wynn, Ryan Orton and Jimmy Gjere, who didn’t play because of an injury along with tight end Eric Lair, the Gophers appear to have some stability on the offensive line. Cornerback Troy Stoudermire, who has been a standout during spring practices, made a big hit to break up a pass intended for Marcus Jones. Safety Kim Royston, granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, is back to help shore up the secondary.
Beyond that, Minnesota’s biggest strength might be in the backfield, even if there aren’t any obvious All-Big Ten candidates. Kirkwood received a medical redshirt after hurting his leg, so he’s a freshman again.
”I’m kind of glad it did happen. Now I’ve got another four years. Hopefully I’ll do better,” said the native of Delray Beach, Fla.
Seniors Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge, who shared carries with the first team, lead the pack that also includes freshmen Lamonte Edwards and Devon Wright.
With leading receiver Da’Jon McKnight out because of a knee injury and junior Brandon Green also hurt, the Gophers have been thin at that position. Bennett took some snaps as a wideout, but he’s still in position to be the lead ballcarrier.
”You can’t be the starter without coming out and competing every day,” Bennett said.
As far as Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover are concerned, there is little need for declaring a starter. Even with Chad Spann last year at Northern Illinois, a 1,400-yard rusher, the Huskies used several other ballcarriers throughout the season.
”If you look at our history, we go with the hot hand and we keep everybody fresh,” Limegrover said.
Added Kill: ”Until we start the first game, we’re going to keep the competition heavy and see how people work.”