Gophers aerial attack largely grounded in spring game

Quarterback Mitch Leidner, shown here in a file photo, finished 7-for-15 for 74 yards passing on Saturday during Minnesota's annual spring game.

Rick Osentoski

MINNEAPOLIS — There were expectations of an aerial show to take place during the Gophers football team’s spring game on Saturday, so all eyes were naturally on the quarterback.

While four different quarterbacks combined to throw for just 168 yards in a 19-0 game, the offense left the field at TCF Bank Stadium feeling pleased with the progress in spring while still acknowledging that a lot of work remains to be done before the season belgins.

"I thought at times we put good drives together. We’ve just got to finish," said redshirt sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner. "And there’s a couple times when me and the receivers have got to get on the same page, but I mean that’s why we’ve got however many months to work on that."

Leidner ascended to the No. 1 quarterback spot when Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers following the 2013 season. That meant redshirt freshman Chris Streveler became the Gophers’ backup quarterback, with redshirt freshman Conor Rhoda and true freshman Dimonic Roden-McKinzy as the team’s third and fourth options.

All four quarterbacks got playing time Saturday in front of a crowd of 4,752 fans at TCF Bank Stadium. Leidner finished 7-for-15 for 74 yards, but he was also sacked twice and threw the game’s only interception. Sophomore cornerback Jalen Myrick picked off a Leidner pass intended for wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky deep down the field.

"I’m not really sure what happened. We’ll have to go back and watch it on tape," Leidner said. "But overall, though, that can’t happen, so we’ve gotta take turnovers and get rid of those."

Streveler attempted just five passes and completed four of them, while also rushing for 11 yards on two carries. Rhoda’s only attempt was completed, while Roden-McKinzy was 5-for-6 for 46 yards.

"I thought there was some good and some bad," said Gophers quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski. "Even the interception, I thought, was a good throw. He kind of kept it going thin and threw it upfield, but I thought overall we moved the ball. We just didn’t do well in the red-zone area."

Running back depth on display: Rodrick Williams was a man on a mission this spring.

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After losing his starting running back job due to an injury as well as the emergence of David Cobb, Williams knew this would be a big spring for him. So the junior capped his solid spring with a game-high 52 rushing yards on nine carries for an average of 5.8 yards per run.

"I don’t know how many yards I had. My goal was just to come out here and perform as best as I could," Williams said following Minnesota’s spring game. "I guess I had something to prove. I hadn’t played since the middle of last season, so I’ve got to get back on the field."

As a sophomore last year, Williams had 332 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 60 carries. But an injury sidelined him against Nebraska and Indiana as Cobb ran his way to the starting running back job. Cobb had just 29 rushing yards on seven carries in Saturday’s spring game.

Meanwhile, redshirt freshman running back Berkley Edwards — younger brother of former NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards — had the longest run of the game when he scampered 33 yards to the end zone. Edwards used his speed to bounce to the outside and dash down the left sideline for the only touchdown of the day.

"He’s definitely a game breaker," Streveler said of Edwards. "He can take it 80 (yards) at any point. He’s a great player."

Edwards’ speed makes him a nice compliment in the backfield to the physical styles of Williams and Donnell Kirkwood. Minnesota’s depth at the running back position has also created plenty of competition this spring, something that will only intensify in the fall.

Williams, for one, embraces the competition.

"It seems like all we’ve got is good backs," Williams said. "I mean, it’s fun because competition makes practice fun. We’re like brothers. We’re real close. It’s not really a heated situation every day. We all know we’re competing for the same spot."

Defensive line thin for spring game: Minnesota’s injuries were perhaps most noticeable along the defensive line this spring. Six of the Gophers’ defensive linemen did not play Saturday, including senior defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli.

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The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Botticelli broke a bone in his foot during practice this week and was in a walking boot on the sideline during Saturday’s game. Head coach Jerry Kill said Botticelli will need about five weeks to heal and will be ready to go by the time fall practice rolls around.

With so many defensive linemen absent Saturday, it allowed other players to step up. That included Robert Ndondo-Lay, a redshirt junior who transferred to the Gophers from Winona State. He had three tackles as well as a sack of Leidner.

When asked which defensive players stood out in Saturday’s spring game, Kill was quick to mention Ndondo-Lay.

"He’s a young man who’s really a unique story, and that’s what you love about college football," Kill said. "He comes in here, he walks on, he gets in the weight room. He’s 265 pounds and had a great spring. He wants to play. He works his tail end off. I like that. I like the way he did some things out there today. I like that kid a lot."

Kickers have strong game: Touchdowns were at a premium Saturday, as the Gophers found the end zone just one time all day. That left it up to Minnesota’s kickers to put points on the board.

The special teams unit did just that. Three different kickers attempted field goals, and all three connected at least once. Andrew Harte hit a pair of field goals from 19 and 53 yards — the longest of the game. Redshirt freshman Ryan Santoso drilled his first attempt from 46 yards but hooked a 51-yard try wide left. Fellow redshirt freshman Justin Juenemann attempted his only kick late in the game and hit from 35 yards out.

The Gophers have an opening for the starting place-kicker with the graduation of Chris Hawthorne. No decision was announced this spring on who the new kicker will be.

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