Kill: Gophers’ improved depth means more versatility on offense

Coming off a season in which the Gophers scored an average of 25.7 points per game, the most for the school since 2006, optimism is riding high heading into Thursday's home opener against Eastern Illinois.

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MINNEAPOLIS — The quarterback situation is settled with redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner comfortable as the leader of the offense. The University of Minnesota football team returns its leading rusher and receiver from last season.

Coming off a season in which the Gophers scored an average of 25.7 points per game, the most for the school since 2006, optimism is riding high heading into Thursday’s home opener against Eastern Illinois.

"I definitely think our offense is 10 times better," said running back David Cobb on Saturday. "Starting up front with the O-line, all those guys are bigger and stronger and they’re so versatile. Going against our defense every day, those guys are great. I think they’ve got us prepared to play. We run the ball a lot better and we definitely pass the ball a lot better. Mitch has got chemistry down with those receivers. I definitely think we’ll be a lot better this year."

Coach Jerry Kill believes he has versatility in the personnel of his offense.

"I think that, you know, we’re certainly deeper at tight end," Kill said. "We’re deep at backs. We got different kind of backs. Receiver-wise we got small, jitterbug-type guys, and then we got some guys with length . . . As far as personnel-wise, I just think we’re able to do, to be able to do different things from each week but really stay in the same thing we’re doing. But we can certainly do some things formational-wise with different people."

The offense begins with Leidner, solidified in his role as the starting signal caller. The big (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) Leidner was second on the team in rushing last year behind Cobb. But the opportunity is present for Leidner to do more with his arm.

He had 407 yards rushing on 102 attempts while splitting time last season with the departed Philip Nelson. Leidner completed 55.1 percent of his passes for 619 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a 131.9 quarterback efficiency rating.

"Designed quarterback runs will definitely be less this year," Leidner said. "In terms of getting out and scrambling, there’s always that possibility out of any quarterback. It’s just the difference between keeping my eyes downfield, extending the play, or if I do have to take off and run, just be smart with the football."

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Leidner has tight end Maxx Williams, who led Minnesota with 417 receiving yards last season and was tied for the team-lead with 25 catches and five touchdown receptions. Receivers Drew Wolitarsky, Isaac Fruechte and Donovahn Jones return, each had double-digit catches last season.

KJ Maye adds to the depth of the receiving corps.

"I have to tell you, the guy that’s had the best camp is KJ Maye, without a doubt," Kill said. "There is some chemistry involved there with Donovahn, and Drew Wolitarsky, Isaac. There is some chemistry there. They’ve thrown a heck of a lot of footballs, so they’ve worked hard at it."

Behind Leidner is Cobb, who ran for 1,202 yards last season, the 12th highest, single-season total in Gophers’ history. With another 1,000-yard season, Cobb could leap into the top-10 in career rushing for Minnesota.

The Gophers still have Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams, who each started games at running back last year, and will get the chance to unveil redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards.

Edwards, a speed threat from the backfield, was injured last fall and missed his first season on campus.

"Berkley is a really fast kid and Cobb’s a great back to have," Leidner said. "Those two together on the field at the same time, that can be tough for defenses."

Minnesota rushed for 2,538 yards last season, which ranked 37th in the country and ran for 23 touchdowns, the most for the team since 2006.

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Finishing drives and explosive plays has been the offseason focus for Minnesota.

"The biggest thing is we have to finish," Cobb said. "We’ll get down in the red zone and we can’t score. We’ll make a mistake or have a penalty. We have to be a more mature team, which we are. And we have to be a more disciplined team, which coach Kill has stressed all summer and all offseason. I think the offense will be more efficient and we’ll be able to finish in the red zone."

Cobb said it starts with the offensive line and projected starters Ben Lauer, Zac Epping, Tommy Olson, Foster Bush and Josh Campion, from left to right along the line.

"It starts up front," Cobb said. Those guys give us a good push and Mitch reading the defense putting us in the best situation to make the best possible play. My job is to make the most of any situation, make a man miss, break a tackle here and there, just get the extra yard."

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