Gray fully comfortable with Gophers’ offense

MINNEAPOLIS — A week into fall camp, the University of Minnesota football team held a scrimmage on Friday at TCF Bank Stadium. The scrimmage was open to the public and offered Gophers fans a closer look at a team that appears improved over last year’s 3-9 bunch.

Five things to take away from the first part of fall camp, which culminated with Friday’s scrimmage:

1. MarQueis Gray is a more comfortable (and confident) quarterback than he was a year ago.

Last season, Gray never seemed to have full command of Minnesota’s offense. In his first year as the team’s starter after spending two years at wide receiver, Gray struggled at times. He was also quick to tuck the ball and run when his first or second read was not open.

Now, Gray is more patient in the pocket, allowing the play to develop in front of him. He’s also an accurate passer, as he exhibited Friday with several nice throws to receivers along the sideline. Despite a few penalties by the offensive line, Gray was able to move the first-team offense down the field for touchdowns in his first two possessions.

Much of the Gophers’ success in 2012 will hinge on Gray’s growth as a quarterback and a leader. So far this fall, he’s shown he’s more confident, both in the huddle and in the pocket.

“I have full control over (the offense) now, a lot more comfortable getting the plays in and out of the huddle,” Gray said Friday. “The guys believe in me, believe in (themselves) and we’re just making strides to get better this year.”

2. Maybe James Gillum isn’t a lock as the No. 1 running back.

Entering camp — and even throughout the first week of fall practices — it appeared as if Gillum, a junior college transfer, was the likely choice as the Gophers’ top running back. He entered the fall with more college experience than the rest of Minnesota’s backs (albeit not at the Division I level).

But during Friday’s scrimmage, Gillum didn’t get nearly as many first-team carries as sophomore David Cobb and redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood. Cobb had the most impressive scrimmage of any of the backs on Friday, breaking off a 68-yard run to put the offense in the red zone. He also scored a touchdown from seven yards out.

It should be noted, though, that Cobb had an impressive spring game as a freshman last year but didn’t get much playing time during the season (just 10 carries). Still, the strong play of he and Kirkwood should make the running back competition interesting alongside Gillum.

“I think the great thing about it is I’d much rather have that situation than begging for a kid to step up and make plays, no doubt about it,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “I think the fact that guys are going and working and there’s tremendous competition, those guys are going to go in and be very critical of what they did today.”

3. Mental mistakes are still an issue.

In 2011, the Gophers hurt themselves often on both offense and defense with mental mistakes. Penalties came at crucial times in games that stalled drives or took points off the board.

During Friday’s scrimmage, the mental mistakes were still present. The first-team offense committed false-start penalties on back-to-back snaps during its first drive. The second-team offense fumbled the ball on consecutive plays — the first by sophomore quarterback Max Shortell and the second by running back Devon Wright. There were also a few poor exchanges between the centers and quarterbacks.

The defense had its share of mental mistakes as well, missing coverage assignments that resulted in long pass completions for the offense.

“We gave up too many big plays on defense, made a couple mental errors,” senior linebacker Mike Rallis said. “That’s something that we’ve got to look at the film. Coach (Jerry) Kill just says you never really know until you look at the film. We’ve got to go back and look at it and we’ll make our corrections.”

4. Minnesota’s kicking game is taking shape.

The kicking game was a weak spot for Minnesota a year ago, especially punting. The Gophers were 11th in the Big Ten in net punting yardage (34.2 yards), ahead of only Michigan. Punter Dan Orseske struggled during his redshirt sophomore season.

Now, it appears redshirt freshman Pete Mortell, a Green Bay native, could take over as the team’s top punter. During punting drills in Friday’s scrimmage, Mortell consistently had the team’s longest punts. In limited reps, Orseske badly shanked a punt out of bounds. Minnesota also has David Schwerman and Australian Christian Eldred as options at punter.

As for the kicking, Jordan Wettstein has all but solidified his spot as the No. 1 kicker. Wettstein got his chance last year as a junior when Chris Hawthorne was hurt. He capitalized, converting on all six of his field-goal attempts and nine of 10 extra points. Wettstein and Hawthorne shared most of the kickoff duties in Friday’s scrimmage, and both looked good on field-goal attempts — Hawthorne hit a 45-yarder, and Wettstein drilled a 33-yarder.

5. Several true freshmen are likely to contribute to the offense.

With such a young team, it’s unlikely the Gophers will use many redshirts this season. That means true freshmen wide receivers Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison, who both have emerged this fall as targets for Gray, will likely be on the field. McDonald possesses the size (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) to be a legitimate Big Ten receiver and made a nice sideline catch Friday on a Gray pass of about 30 yards.

“He’s going to be one of those guys to go get the ball for us,” Gray said of McDonald. “… He’s been doing great in camp so far. Hopefully he keeps it up.”

Another true freshman turning heads has been K.J. Maye, who is listed on the roster as an athlete. Maye, from Mobile, Ala., possesses intriguing speed. He has lined up a good amount at running back and has also gotten reps as a kick returner. He doesn’t have great size (5-10, 190), but he has a quickness that most of Minnesota’s other running backs don’t have. Maye’s ability to play multiple positions — he has also lined up as a wide receiver — could translate into playing time as a true freshman.

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