Gophers return to practice with increased balance and depth
MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Gophers football team took the field Friday for their its first fall practice, Minnesota had something it hasn't yet had under third-year head coach Jerry Kill: depth.
Several position battles will play out during camp -- including quarterback, where sophomore Philip Nelson isn't guaranteed the job for the season opener against UNLV. The Gophers also boast depth along the offensive line and can't yet pencil in a starting five up front.
The depth and balanced roster is thanks in part to Kill finally having two of his recruiting classes on campus. When he arrived, things were much more unsettled and the Gophers could barely field enough players at some positions.
"I would like to have one more recruiting class, but even with that, we've got two full recruiting classes," Kill said after Friday's practice. "Some of the older kids have developed along the process. When I first got here, there wasn't a whole lot of competition. It was survival mode. Last year we were even surviving on the offensive line and just trying to keep healthy bodies in there. . . .
"There's much more competition, and that's good. That's good for practice because if you sit down and don't do well, you're going to get yourself in trouble. I feel good about what we have. We've got to do a good job coaching it."
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was asked Friday if he was able to name his starting five offensive linemen for the season. Last year the line was plagued by a number of injuries, which led to the younger linemen getting experience.
Now if the offensive line can stay healthy, it will benefit from last year's growing pains.
"I'm not into making predictions," Limegrover said. "They're going to tell me who's going to start on Aug. 28, not me. I'm not going to just sit there and make a random decision. They're going to show me at all those positions, day in and day out. I told them, it's going to be a no-brainer for me because five guys will find a way to scream to me, 'Hey, I deserve to be that guy.'"
Quarterbacks struggle on Day 1: As is to be expected, Minnesota's quarterbacks looked a bit rusty on the first day of fall practice. Nelson and redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner received most of the first and second team reps, respectively. Both had their shaky moments during the second half of the practice.
Nelson was intercepted by linebacker Jephte Matilus in 11-on-11 drills. Later in practice, cornerback Derrick Wells made a nice jump on a pass from Leidner and returned it for a touchdown. Leidner also fumbled an exchange from the center in what was a trying first day for the Gophers' young quarterbacks.
"You evaluate that position every day. That's part of life," Kill said. "They're like me. We get evaluated every day, and you have to have tough skin. That's just part of that position."
Nelson said the quarterbacks were going to watch film after Friday's practice to look at what went right and what went wrong in the first fall practice.
"That's what makes a quarterback play great, you can go up there and fix them and work on them tomorrow," Nelson said. "You can never be too accurate, and there's always a better place to put the ball. Just getting out there and getting the bullets thrown at you, I think all of us felt it. That's something we've got to continue to work on."
Gophers add size: Kill has praised the work of strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein, who has helped bulk up the Gophers players over the past few years. This fall, Minnesota finally is looking the part of a Big Ten team.
The Gophers have added size at several positions, perhaps most noticeably at tight end. At 6-foot-9, freshman tight end Nate Wozniak towered about the rest of his teammates.
"He's a big ol' kid, isn't he?" Kill said of Wozniak. "I told him, 'When you catch that ball, get those pads down because there's a lot to hit there.' And he's athletic. That's the great thing. He weighs 260. He doesn't look that because he's 6-foot-9. But as I told the young quarterback . . . I go, 'How can you miss that target?'"
Wozniak, a native of Greenwood, Ind., is joined by several other tight ends with good size, including redshirt freshman Maxx Williams (6-foot-4, 254 lbs) and sophomore Lincoln Plsek (6-foot-4, 265). Plsek saw time last year as a true freshman, playing in the Gophers' final eight games and catching three passes.
Even the Gophers' kicking game has been beefed up. Freshman kicker/punter Ryan Santoso weighs in at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, looking more like a linebacker or tight end than a kicker.
"We're looking more like a Big Ten team needs to look," Kill said. "Are we there yet? I'm not going to tell you that. But we're looking better."
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