I apologize in advance if this violates some social media policy and all future practices are closed to the public. Really, I'm sorry.
So, I went to the three Gopher public practices. Despite the injustice of it all, I'm not a media member so am left to attend the practices open to the great unwashed. I liked it better when there were two weeks of open practices and you could bring a picnic lunch and play Frisbee with your dog. But the team wasn't very good then, so I guess I'll sacrifice some accessibility if it means having a generally competitive team.
Again, I don't want to be the guy who gets public practices shut down once and for all, so I'm going to use a lot of generalities. The last thing we need is some knob like me spouting off about how Player X missed a block and we're doomed and, BANG, Kill shuts the door to the public, cancels my season tickets and demands I be strung up from the scoreboard. I know much of what I'll yammer about here has been covered by real writers at massive media companies and I shouldn't worry; but public access is a privilege a lot of coaches don't allow, so I don't want to be the one that ruins it.
And with those sweet, blessed 100 words of qualification out of the way, let's crack open my melon for some impressions.
- You know, I was pretty impressed with Mitch Leidner. I came into the practices expecting some incremental improvement over last year in terms of making throws and managing the offense, but he pretty handily exceeded where I thought he'd be. Coming out of high school, he had the reputation for being a pass-first quarterback (from the extraordinarily limited accounts I've heard, he really wasn't a strong runner at all in high school). We didn't get to see that much last year as he was thrown into the offense as a red-shirt freshmen and forced to learn on the go. He became a decent runner through concerted effort, though I suppose having 300-pound defensive tackles chasing me around would give me a little giddy-up too. In the bowl game (of which we shall never speak again) we saw a little bit of the ol' gunslinger come out and, in my opinion, he's continued that trajectory over the summer. He's clearly got a better handle on his progressions and has been hitting the short and intermediate passes much more consistently than he did last season. His deep ball is majestic, which bodes well for the play action we're sure to run by the bucket full this year. He'll make some mistakes but I feel the best I have about our starting quarterback since, uh, maybe Adam Weber.
- The freshmen class is robust. Seriously, there are some big, athletic dudes who would have started for this program four years ago. Fortunately, we're now in a place where we can afford to sit most of them for their first year. The ones who were most impressive are those you've likely seen in the media and other blogs: Melvin Holland at wide receiver looks like a junior already and seems to have a solid grasp of the offense; Steven Richardson is a little shorter than I was expecting and many multiples stronger and more explosive than I could have imagined; Connor Mayes, the guy who started at center in the Army All-American game, has thoroughly impressed; Jerry Gibson and Gaelin Elmore are freakishly athletic, big and, for now, adding to our stable of TEs/H-backs. I'm a rube with absolutely no inside information into the program, but I'd expect at least three of those five to get some playing time this year (Mayes probably won't, and that's no knock on him; it's usually best to give offensive linemen at least a year in a strength and condition program and, frankly, we have decent depth at the line right now). Kill held his own against some fairly decent major conference teams when he was at Northern Illinois with recruits he could get to Northern Illinois. My position has always been to see how many guys he could get to Minnesota that he couldn't have gotten to Northern. All other things being equal, that would be a way to gauge the incremental talent (and, inferring a little, incremental results) one could expect from Kill at Minnesota. While we saw several in previous classes, there a probably a dozen such guys in this class. That bodes well.
- Defensively, we're in good shape. Prior to last year, I aged six months for every Gophers defensive series since 1999. And while we may not have a Tyrone Carter in our starting eleven, we have the front-to-back talent to keep us from stroking out when we punt the ball away. The secondary is fast and, amazingly, deep. There is solid depth at all four positions in the defensive backfield, which should allow Claeys to get creative in aligning personnel to suit an opponent's relative strengths and weaknesses. Campbell, Wilson and Lynn, the provisional starters at linebacker, are all at or around 240lbs, which, Jo'bu willing, means we will continue to improve against power running teams. And I've been impressed with the ability of the line to eat up blocks. The first-team line and linebackers put on a master class of defending the run against the first-team offense, stopping them cold on three Roderick Williams runs from the one-yard line on Wednesday. Particularly impressive there was Campbell, who flew into contact to break up a play
- After the first two practices, I was pretty worried about our offensive line. They didn't seem terribly consistent and, whatever the reason, just weren't clicking. That fear was mitigated by today's practice where, by and large, they did a good job run blocking and were serviceable in pass protection. I list this as an "opportunity" because the season really depends on them. They demonstrated the ability to generate a push to run the ball last year, even in the absence of a passing game. They'll need to do that again. Additionally, given our quarterback situation (more on that in a minute) keeping Leidner upright and healthy is critical. There are a lot of starts on this line and, seemingly, some decent talent behind them. Success this year hinges on finding the group of guys who gel and perform more like today's practice and less like Monday and Tuesday's.
- If there were a GIF to express my feelings on our quarterback depth, it would be a rat chewing its way through my eye. It's just...man. At this point, it looks like QB2 is a battle between Chris Streveler and Connor Rhoda. Streveler is big, fast and athletic, Rhoda is your typical college pocket passer, meaning he's mobile enough, but you won't mistake him for Marqueis Gray. They both have the potential to be decent quarterbacks, I think; but they're just red-shirt freshmen. We're in this unfortunate cycle at the moment, where our starting and back up quarterbacks have been sophomores and freshmen, respectively. That makes it difficult to maintain any consistency should the starter go down. I'd give Streveler the inside track to be the back up and expect he'll get some run to spell Leidner for a series or two a game; but, given his limitations in passing the ball at this point, it would not surprise me to see a heavy dose of read option when he is under center.
- Depth. This isn't really an "opportunity" as much as it is a reality. We do not have the luxury of the Alabamas and Ohio States of the college football world, where there are two four-star reserves waiting to go in the game should the starter get hurt. From what I saw from our starting players on offense and defense over three days, the Gophers should be able to keep it competitive in all of their games this year. In the event of injury, though, particularly at quarterback, defensive line and linebacker, we're pulling up the true and red-shirt freshmen as substitutes. Look no further than the 2013 Northwestern Wildcats to see how that turns out. We need to be fortunate with injuries this year to be successful. And while the same is true for every team, our margin is thinner than most.
My questions going in to Saturday's scrimmage
I'm sure it will be vanilla. I'm sure we won't see Cobb or Maxx for more than a series or two. But we should be able to figure out a few things based on this Saturday's scrimmage:
- Does Streveler maintain his apparent advantage in the competition to back-up Leidner or does Rhoda close the gap?
- Ryan Santoso, my 6'6" 240lb kicker spirit animal, seemed to be our day-one starter going into fall camp. Is he consistent enough at the scrimmage to secure that spot or does he leave the door open for Alex Harte?
- Which freshmen will make the case to have their red-shirt pulled?
- Will we see a defensive lineman emerge to compliment Theiren Cockran's pass rush?
I'm looking forward to Saturday, as it will be the last look we see of the team until kickoff on August 28th. If you see Coach Kill stringing me up to the scoreboard during pre-game warm ups, you can be pretty sure that I've ruined public practices for everyone.
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