Sunday, August 17, 2014

100k Words on Gophers Football - They Were Only Freshmen

This is part of a series to attempt to write 100,000 words on Gopher football from the start of fall camp (I changed the rules - it was to begin a week before the first game, but I need all the time I can get) through the week after the conclusion of the regular season. In the event I fail, I will donate $500 to a charity chosen by my Twitter followers (nothing related to Wisconsin or Iowa athletics).

Starting word count: 8,226

Word has started to leak out over the last few days, providing some insight into which true freshmen might see the field this year. Always an exciting time, it affords us the opportunity to dream a little bigger about the kids who will come into the program and, through athleticism, tenacity and football smarts, displace an incumbent member of the two-deep roster. Here, we’ll hop into the Ship of the Imagination with you and outline our thoughts on which 18-year olds will change the face of Gopher football this year.

Part of what makes Still Got Hope special, what gives us our sustained competitive advantage, if you will, is that we have no insight into the program whatsoever. Our interactions with the coaches have been limited to shaking Jerry Kill’s hand in a tailgate lot once. We have never requested, and would likely never get, media credentials to attend practices or watch the games from the ivory tower of the Jim Souhan Pressbox at TCF Bank Stadium. Nay, we are men of the people, just like you. We attend the practices to which the plebeians are allowed. We read all the blogs, articles and tweets. We parse over every coach-speak utterance from members of the staff like the lawyers we are not. But we have no special knowledge. We’re simply idly speculating to entertain other rubes and fulfill absurd, self-directed word count challenges.

We’ve broken this analysis up into three total subjective categories:
  1. Will probably see the field as a position player this year – this is pretty self-explanatory: the player will line up on offense or defense in his primary position, though maybe not much
  2. Will probably see the field as a special teams player this year – also self-evident: the player’s redshirt will be burned, but only in the capacity of special teams play
  3. Will probably redshirt – won’t see the field this year

Will probably see the field as a position player
DE Gaelin Elmore
DT Steven Richardson
WR Melvin Holland
WR Isaiah Gentry
CB Craig James 

This group is pretty small which, frankly, is how it should be going into the fourth year of Kill’s regime. The justification for the above players seeing the field this year fall into one of three reasons: pure skill and talent, depth and coach’s preference.

Elmore and Richardson fall into the first camp. Richardson is like Roland Johnson 2.0. Short but powerful, he already has the ability to shoot gaps (a requirement for defensive tackles in this system) as well as the strength to hold the point of attack against opposing centers and guards. He will certainly be in the four/five-man rotation at tackle to start the year and it wouldn’t shock me if he were to get a start toward the end of the season.

For similar reasons, Elmore will be playing some defensive end this campaign. The coaches have been playing a little coy about him getting on the field this year, but my sense is that he’s too good to not play. Already 6’6” and 265lbs, he led the state of Wisconsin in tackles for loss as a high school senior. Further, Kill suggested Elmore is probably on his way to the 285lb range. Gaelin probably isn’t quite as game ready as Richardson at this point; but with his size, athletic ability and instincts, will certainly be a factor in the rotation at end.

The wide receivers noted above will play this season under a different rationale: depth. While both Holland and Gentry possess a fairly unique set of skills with vis-à-vis the players currently on the roster – the former with what appears to be an immensely developed football IQ and legitimate size; the latter being the tall, fast deep threat that was lacking last year – they’ll see the field because the Gophers lack quality depth at wide out. The coaches have been virtually mum on the quality of the freshman class of receivers and their likelihood of playing this year. My gut feeling is that this is some gamesmanship to keep an element of surprise going into the season. In terms of non-slot receivers, we have Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky, Isaac Fruechte and Logan Hutton who have engaged in any meaningful game time. Both Jones and Wolitarsky have a lot of potential but, as true sophomores, one could expect some bumps in the road. The latter two, while fine players, have really made a name for themselves as run blockers. While a critical function in this offensive scheme, the Gophers need help advancing the ball through the air. I just don’t see that happening consistently with the current two deep. Consequently, Holland and Gentry will get their opportunities to contribute. 

Craig James will get in because, by all accounts, he’s ready. Perhaps more important than that, though, is this staff’s inclination to play true freshmen defensive backs. Every year at least one contributing member of the secondary was in his first year in the program and, as the only scholarship defensive back recruited in the 2014 cycle, I expect James will continue that legacy. The secondary is deep, though, so his participation will be situational. Keep an eye open for James in the TCU game as their new Air Raid offense and 90+ degree heat may necessitate participation from the full corps of defensive backs.

Will probably see the field as a position player
DE/DT Andrew Stelter
 TE Brandon Lingen
 LB Jonathan Celestin
LB Everett Williams
While it’s possible any of these four could get in spot duty at their primary position, I think it’s more likely they are used exclusively on special teams. This is a great way to let guys get their feet wet in live action, without needing to understand the nuances of their positions within the larger offensive and defensive schemes. It gets them acclimated to the speed of the college game so they are prepared to meaningfully contribute next year. Attrition due to graduation is a contributing factor here. As upperclassmen move on, getting younger guys ready to fill their position through special teams duty is a tried and true practice. I think that’s the primary motivation in getting the above four guys into the action this year.

The general consensus is the Stelter’s future is at defensive tackle. With Cameron Botticelli graduating after this season and unproven depth behind him, getting Stelter accustomed to preparing for game days, traveling with the team and the particulars of B1G football would be a wise move. With an injury or two a defensive end, it’s possible he sees the field this year, I just think the chances are fairly low.

Similarly, Lingen will get some reps this year with Drew Goodger graduating after this year. Lingen will likely fill a similar role in the offense as a blocking tight end, so getting him some reps on special teams this year would benefit his development and capability to step in next season as a sophomore. There’s enough depth at tight end this year where it would be surprising if he got much time in offensive sets. Given Limegrover’s predilection for running packages with six tight ends/H-backs in the formation, though, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

Celestin and Williams will get some run this year – the former because Kill doesn’t speak more than five words without praising him and the latter to get him ready to play a substantial role in the defense next year. Going into camp, it seemed everyone had penciled these two in as players absolutely certain to redshirt. Both were lightly recruited and there was some uncertainty about their position at the next level: safety or OLB for Celestin and OLB or MLB for Williams. Celestin now appears to be an OLB and has been all over the place in camp. A sure tackler with decent speed, Kill has all but guaranteed he will play this year. I believe Williams will get some run because it will be necessary to get him prepared to play next season. At 6’1” 230lbs, he appears to be settling in as a MLB. With Damien Wilson graduating next season and limited certainty around who will take his place, allowing Williams a year to get situated will help the program for the 2015 season.

Will probably redshirt
WR Desmond Gant
 WR Connor Krizancic
 TE Jerry Gibson
RB Jeff Jones
RB Rodney Smith
 DE Julien Kafo
DT Gary Moore
 OL Connor Mayes
OL Luke Rasmussen
OL Jared Weyler
QB Dimonic McKinzy
Of the 20 scholarship true freshmen on the team, I reckon 11 will redshirt. This is probably a little less than ideal, but given the increased quality of the 2014 recruiting class and depth concerns at a few positions, this still leaves us in pretty good shape. Of the players above, I wouldn’t be floored if either Jerry Gibson or Connor Mayes got in this year; I’m mostly just hoping that they don’t. Gibson is something of an athletic freak who hasn’t really settled into a position yet. With that in mind, it’s hard to see him contributing substantially at tight end or h-back this year in the event his shirt is burned. He’ll be a much more effective player in 2019 than he would be in 2015. 

The same applies to Mayes. In all probability, he’ll be equally capable as some of the offensive guards currently in the two deep by mid year. But getting him another year of development, to grow and gain a more nuanced understanding of the Limegrover’s line philosophy, will pay off in spades three and four years down the road. We appear to have reasonable depth at C/G going into this season. I’d rather see Mayes as a 22-year old monster in 2019 than an 18-year old mini-monster this year.

Ending word count: 9,855

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