Gophers to address question marks Saturday

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team will take to the field at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday for its spring game, which signifies the end of the Gophers’ month of spring practices. Coach Jerry Kill is now in his second year at the helm, and he’s looking to turn the Gophers around after back-to-back 3-9 seasons.

Not all of Minnesota’s 2012 roster has been participating in spring practices, as the Gophers are awaiting most of their freshmen. With that said, there are plenty of things to watch for in Saturday’s spring game, which is free and open to the public.

1. Has MarQueis Gray progressed?
MarQueis Gray was Minnesota’s starting quarterback last year during his junior season, his first year he played the position since high school. As a freshman and sophomore, Gray played wide receiver as Adam Weber held down the starting quarterback spot.

This will be the final spring game for Gray, who has been up and down during spring practices. Saturday will give the senior a chance to show he’s improved as both a quarterback and a leader.

“My job is to help them get better and improve this team,” Gray said after Tuesday’s practice.

Gray showed he can be a threat with his legs, as he rushed for 966 yards last season to lead Minnesota. But his accuracy and decision making as a passer must improve from last season, when he threw eight interceptions and eight touchdowns. Saturday will be a chance for him to showcase improvements he’s made in the offseason and spring.

2. What about the new QBs?
Saturday will offer Gophers fans a good chance to see freshmen quarterbacks Phillip Nelson and Mitch Leidner in action, as both enrolled early at Minnesota and have been taking part in spring practices. Nelson, a graduate of Mankato West High School, was one of the top recruits in the state of Minnesota and the state’s top quarterback. Leidner, a Lakeville South grad, was also a highly-ranked recruit.

Both Nelson and Leidner have been pushing Gray and backup Max Shortell in spring practices.

“Philip’s been competing,” Gray said. “He started the first two scrimmages off with touchdowns. From my standpoint, I’m on the sideline like, ‘Geez, he’s come ready to work.’ Every day, we’ve got to come ready to work. He’s been pushing us a great deal.”

Earlier this week, Kill wouldn’t tip his hand as to how many reps each quarterback would get in Saturday’s spring game.

“Right now, our plan is we’ll divide those guys up,” Kill said of the quarterbacks. “Maybe MarQueis won’t do quite as much on Saturday, but we haven’t sat down and really planned that out.”

3. A first look at James Gillum.
The Gophers have suffered a handful of minor injuries during spring practices, including two of their top running backs. Redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood missed time earlier with a hamstring injury he suffered on the first day of spring camp, but he’s now back on the field. Fellow sophomore running back David Cobb, however, is now out with a knee injury and has had to wear an orange “no contact” jersey. Recently, he’s been relegated to cheering on his teammates from the sidelines.

Those injuries have opened the door for James Gillum, a transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College, to receive an increase in carries. The Gophers lost leading rusher Duane Bennett to graduation after the 2011 season, meaning the starting job is up for grabs in 2012. With Cobb out and Kirkwood having missed plenty of time this spring, expect Gillum to get his chance to shine Saturday in the spring game. Gillum rushed for 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns last year at Mississippi Gulf Coast.

4. Position changes abound.
Several Gophers changed positions either in the offseason or during the year last year. The spring practices provided a good chance for those who made transitions a chance to learn their new positions from the ground up.

This includes quarterback-turned-tight end Moses Alipate, who is now at 290 pounds. A former star QB at Bloomington (Minn.) Kennedy High School, Alipate was not going to see the field for the Gophers as a quarterback. So Kill and his coaching staff moved Alipate to tight end. Former defensive lineman Kendall Gregory-McGhee also moved to tight end, and Brock Vereen moved from cornerback to safety. James Manuel moved from safety to linebacker in the offseason, and Lamonte Edwards has had his first full spring to adjust to the move he made from running back to linebacker during last season.

With 15 spring practices under their belts at the new positions, will the progress show during Saturday’s game?

5. Just how serious will the Gophers take the spring game?
Each college football team seems to handle spring games differently. Some charge admission. Others at some of the top football schools in the country have their spring games televised nationally.

Neither of those scenarios will be true for the Gophers on Saturday, but it remains to be seen what the atmosphere will be like at TCF Bank Stadium — both on the field and in the stands.

Kill said the Gophers will use a running clock. Just like during the season, stats will be kept as well. Kill also said after Thursday’s practice that “the winner gets pork and the loser gets beans.”

The game starts at 11 a.m., and there’s a good chance fans will get to see most of the roster take the field at TCF Bank Stadium.

“We’re such an inexperienced team. All of them really need to play because they’re all pretty young,” Kill said. “As long as they’re healthy and not dinged up any, we’ll play them.”

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