Younger Gophers have chance to shine in Texas Bowl

Freshman wide receiver Donovahn Jones has 10 catches for 157 yards this season for the Gophers.

Pat Lovell/Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Young players such as cornerback Eric

Murray emerged for the Gophers last year in Minnesota’s bowl game. One year

later, a similar scenario could play later this month in the Texas Bowl.

This Gophers team is still very young, but Minnesota has

seen increased contributions from its underclassmen. On the defensive side of

the ball, the matchup with Syracuse could be an opportunity for players like

cornerback Jalen Myrick, a true freshman who saw his playing time increase as

the season went on.

“We’re going to play a one-back team that’s going to

spread it out. I think there is an opportunity there for some young kids,”

said Gophers defensive coordinator and acting head coach Tracy Claeys.

“Jalen Myrick, there at the end of Michigan State (someone) got hurt, (we)

throw him in there and he did a hell of a job. All of a sudden he picks up

confidence. There will be somebody. I don’t know who it is.”

Offensively, the Gophers may need to lean on two more

freshmen in wide receivers Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky. Minnesota will

be without wide receiver Derrick Engel in the bowl game, as Engel — the

Gophers’ leading receiver — had season-ending surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Both Wolitarsky and Jones have gained confidence and

additional playing time in recent games and finished the regular season third

and fifth overall, respectively, for total receiving yards. Wolitarsky caught

11 passes for 165 yards while Jones made 10 catches for 157 yards.

Head coach Jerry Kill knows his young receivers will only

continue to get better, and the Texas Bowl could be a springboard for both of

them heading into their sophomore seasons.

“(Jones) keeps getting bigger. He looks really good

right now. There’s no substitute for maturity,” Kill said. “The

maturity of playing the game at this speed and level is a good thing. They’ll

get better. I expect them to get better in the bowl game. I think Donovan and

Drew, Drew’s 225 pounds right now. I expect him to be better. I want him to be

better when we play in the bowl game.”

Another underclassmen who could shine against Syracuse is

sophomore defensive end Theiren Cockran, who started all 12 games for Minnesota

this year. He led the team with 7.5 sacks and was second with 10 tackles for

loss, trailing only senior Ra’Shede Hageman.

Cockran’s accomplishments have flown under the radar a bit

as he’s played next to Hageman. The bowl game could be Cockran’s chance to make

a name for himself.

“Our future’s very good when you‘ve got guys like that

as a sophomore. We’ve got a lot of good young players right now, so we’re

definitely excited,” Kill said. “For him to get that attention this

early, it’s good for him. He’s not as big as he’s going to get, either. He’s

still mature. It’s really scary how good he’s going to be.”

Heisman finalist will visit Gophers: During his three

years at Minnesota, Kill has often spoken highly of his former quarterback at

Northern Illinois, Jordan Lynch. The Huskies senior recently finished third in

the Heisman Trophy voting after compiling 45 total touchdowns in 2013 — 23

through the air, 22 on the ground.

Kill said this past weekend that he plans to have Lynch come

speak to the Gophers at some point after the season is over. Lynch didn’t play

much as a freshman under Kill at NIU, passing just six times as Chandler

Harnish received most of the snaps at quarterback. But Lynch did run the ball

31 times in 2010 for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

Lynch finished the 2013 season with 274 carries for 1,881

yards — second-most among all FBS players.

“It’s one of those things where Jordan is so good is

the mental part. He’s tough. To carry the ball that many times and not get

injured and all that, the mental toughness is what’s special about him,”

Kill said. “There’s no question he’s a good one for our guys to talk to.

The bottom line is he’s a Heisman trophy guy up there. I’d listen.”

Nelson not limited in practice: Gophers sophomore

quarterback Philip Nelson left Minnesota’s final game of the regular season

against Michigan State after failing the concussion test. He was replaced by

redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner for the remainder of the game.

Yet despite that injury suffered Nov. 30, Nelson has fully participated

in the Gophers’ bowl practices the last few weeks.

“We practiced last week for three days and he was full

go,” Kill said Friday.

Nelson finished that game against the Spartans by completing

just six of 18 passes before suffering the injury. For the year, the sophomore

from Mankato was 92-for-179 (51.4 percent) for 1,288 yards passing with nine

passing touchdowns and six interceptions. He also ran for 350 yards and six

touchdowns.

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