Spring game leaves unanswered questions

MINNEAPOLIS — What do we know about the Golden Gophers football team at this point? Did Saturday’s spring game give us any glimpse into what Minnesota might look like this fall?

Not really. I left TCF Bank Stadium after the game feeling more confused than anything. The Gophers played two 25-minute halves with a running clock. But when the second half was over, they added 10 more minutes to the clock — and then played just five of those minutes before abruptly ending.

I’m guessing many of the fans that braved the rain and stuck around until the end were just as puzzled as I was.

Clock issues aside, the action on the field didn’t really give those at TCF Bank Stadium much of a glimpse into the Gophers football team’s future. After all, the final score was 3-0. Does that really indicate that Minnesota going to struggle offensively during the upcoming 2012 season? Or that its defense will be dominant?

Not necessarily.

I was left with several unanswered questions Saturday. I wanted to know how good junior college transfer James Gillum looked at running back. When David Cobb went down with a knee injury and fellow running back Donnell Kirkwood just recently back from a hamstring injury, I figured Gillum would get a good chunk of carries Saturday.

Wrong. Gillum had just three carries for six yards, with a long run of four yards. Kirkwood had five carries for 25 yards. Meanwhile, freshman running back Cole Banham — the Gophers’ shortest back at just 5-foot-9 — ran eight times for 24 yards. JoJuan Harper, a redshirt freshman who transferred from North Dakota State College of Sciences but never played there, had a team-high nine carries for 44 yards. The Columbia Heights (Minn.) native led all rushers Saturday. But in a spring game, that really doesn’t mean much.

The Gophers are looking to replace last year’s starting running back, Duane Bennett, who graduated after the 2011 season. Saturday’s spring game didn’t really shed any light on that situation.

Like I’m sure many others were, I was looking forward to watching freshmen quarterbacks Phillip Nelson and Mitch Leidner in Saturday’s game. It was the first game-like experience at this level since the two enrolled early at Minnesota this spring. I had seen Nelson play once before during his junior year at Mankato West, but that was two years ago.

Neither he nor Leidner showed much Saturday, however. In fact, neither completed a pass — Nelson was 0-for-6 and was sacked three times, while Leidner threw just two passes, both for incompletions. In all likelihood, the starting quarterback job is still safe with senior MarQueis Gray, but Minnesota now has depth at the position — despite what Saturday’s stats may say.

Of course, there are still plenty of incoming freshmen that didn’t play in Saturday’s game. Only a handful of this year’s recruiting class enrolled early, including Nelson and Leidner. But there are a few players that could come in right away and make an impact, such as wide receiver Andre McDonald. Minnesota needs a playmaker at wide receiver, and McDonald could fit the bill.

A standout at Hopkins (Minn.) High School, McDonald originally committed to Vanderbilt before changing to his hometown team. He was considered one of the top recruits in the state, and Jerry Kill and the Gophers managed to land him. Minnesota is also waiting for players like Jonah Pirsig, a 6-foot-9, 295-pound offensive tackle ranked as one of the top high school players in the state and the No. 35 offensive tackle in the country, according to Scout.com. Players like these should add intrigue to the fall for a Gophers team coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons.

For a Minnesota team looking to move in the right direction in Kill’s second year at the helm, the Gophers didn’t offer much indication of anything on Saturday. Their playbook was admittedly vanilla for the spring game. As Gray said: “We didn’t want to show too much.”

Minnesota certainly didn’t do that. Looks like the Gophers will be waiting until the fall to show anything.

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