MINNEAPOLIS — As he stood on the sideline during the Gophers’ spring practice Tuesday, cornerback Eric Murray barked at fellow defensive back Jalen Myrick, giving him pointers on how to defend a wide receiver.
It was a rare moment of vocal tutelage for Murray, who will be a senior during the 2015 season. Minnesota’s top cornerback doesn’t say much on — or off — the field, instead letting his play set an example for the team’s other defensive backs.
"He’s not a guy that says a whole lot," said Gophers coach Jerry Kill. "When he does, people listen."
Minnesota has had a number of strong senior leaders in the secondary in recent years. Two years ago, it was senior safety Brock Vereen, who went on to get drafted by the Chicago Bears. In 2014, safety Cedric Thompson was the unquestioned leader of the secondary. He’s now hoping that his body of work in college, coupled by a strong pro day, can land him a job in the NFL.
While it’s hard to argue Murray’s standing as one of the best — if not, the best — cornerbacks on the Gophers roster, he’s the first to admit that being the lone leader isn’t something that fits his personality.
"I wouldn’t say it’s really a leadership role. I think we’re all leaders," Murray said. "Collectively, we all lead each other and we’ve all got that kind of relationship to where if I wasn’t doing something right, anybody who wasn’t playing or had a less significant role, they can say something to me and really get on me, and I appreciate that because they’re making me better."
The numbers for Murray don’t jump off the page like they did during his breakout sophomore season. He had fewer pass breakups (7) as a junior than he did as a sophomore (10), but he did notch his first career interception. Part of that is due to the fact that Murray’s ability as a shut-down corner meant opposing teams often didn’t throw his way.
That’s the type of leadership Murray feels he brings to the Gophers’ secondary. He’ll leave the vocal part of it to other upperclassmen, like senior cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun.
"Briean has kind of taken it upon himself. That’s kind of who he is," Kill said. "We’ve got guys back there. We’re loaded. Our secondary, with Damarius (Travis), Briean, Antonio (Johnson), Eric, that’s a close-knit group. I can’t explain it but it’s close-knit. They’re all leaders. They’re just a great group of kids, they really are."
Tight ends old and new: Former Gophers tight end Maxx Williams was at Tuesday’s open practice, watching his old teammates take part in their fourth session of the spring. He stood on the sidelines for most of the day but also found time to catch up with the team’s current players, as well as Kill.
Williams left Minnesota after his redshirt sophomore season to declare for the NFL Draft, which takes place in less than two months.
After practice, Kill was asked if Williams lobbied to borrow a helmet and pads to rejoin his old team for a day.
"He don’t want to do that," Kill said. "He’s getting ready to make a lot of money, so he’s staying out of anything."
Williams left the program as one of the top tight ends in Gophers history, and often wowed fans with his athletic catches or memorable hurdles over defenders. There was another tight end who turned some heads at Tuesday’s practice, though, in redshirt freshman Noah Scarver.
The Minneapolis Washburn grad redshirted the 2013 season at Montana and then transferred to Minnesota, where he once again had to redshirt. During Tuesday’s practice, Scarver made a leaping, one-handed catch over the middle of the field that drew some oohs and aahs from the fans in attendance, and even elicited one fan to make a comparison to some of the catches Williams used to make.
"Everybody always asks me who’s been kind of a surprise in camp or whatever. He definitely has," Kill said of Scarver. "For a kid who hasn’t done a lot with the offensive guys, he’s very athletic and has very good hands and he’s 270 pounds and can run. I hope he continues to do what he’s doing. He’s been a pleasant surprise."
It’s a unique fraternity. Half of us get fired every year or whatever it is. . . . You better be nice, because you might be working for the other guy.
- Jerry Kill
Coaches keep an eye on Gophers: During Tuesday’s practice — which was open to the public — a number of college and high school football coaches lined the sidelines at the Gibson-Nagurski Complex. It’s not uncommon to see coaches taking notes on how Kill and the Gophers run their practices, as it’s taken place for years since Kill took over.
One of the coaches in attendance Tuesday was Wyoming coach Craig Bohl, who previously coached at North Dakota State. Kill also said he’s recently met with former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who is now at Youngstown State, as well as Duke head coach David Cutcliffe.
While the coaches learned plenty from Kill during that time, he admits he picks up just as much from them as they’ve exchanged stories or strategies.
"Shoot, I learn a lot more from them," Kill said. "That’s the great thing. When they come in, I’ve learned just as much from high school coaches and high school programs. . . .
"We all get yelled at every Saturday or whatever, but we all work together. It’s a unique fraternity. Half of us get fired every year or whatever it is. Every five years, half of us lose our jobs. You better be nice, because you might be working for the other guy."