Temperatures outside the Gophers’ indoor practice facility hovered in the 30s and 40s this week, but listening to running back Donnell Kirkwood, it seemed like mid-August.
After the team’s first spring practice Tuesday, Kirkwood marveled at how advanced the whole operation seemed.
“We’re definitely ahead of where we were last spring, and where we were in summer camp,” he said. “This kind of feels like the middle of summer camp almost, with how we’re running things. And I like it. The team has improved.”
The proof won’t come until the real games begin in five months, of course, but players and coaches exuded a certain confidence that they were picking up exactly where they hoped after their bowl game loss to Texas Tech.
Coach Jerry Kill entered camp raving about the progress his players had made in the team’s offseason conditioning program. He seemed genuinely pleased with the first three practices, too.
“We didn’t have to start from scratch, so to speak,” Kill said. “I mean we’ve got plenty of work to do, we know that, but we didn’t have anybody standing around.”
This is Kill’s third spring at the Gophers’ helm, and his staff noticed a pronounced difference in practices from Year 1 to Year 2, as the team’s record improved from 3-9 to 6-7.
Kill has a track record of delivering even greater improvement in Year 3. After going 5-18 in his first two seasons at Southern Illinois, the Salukis went 10-2 in 2003. And after going 13-13 in his first two seasons at Northern Illinois, the Huskies went 10-3 in 2010.
Few experts would predict the Gophers having that kind of success in the Big Ten this fall, but it’s not hard to picture Minnesota taking another step in the rebuilding process.
The Gophers have 10 starters returning on offense, including sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson. After sputtering for weeks, the offense came to life in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, only to lose 34-31.
“We know that game has taught us so much,” Nelson said. “And we know what we are capable of — being that great physical team that can also play-action pass.
“That’s what you’re seeing out here. We have an official offensive identity.”
The Gophers plan to continue running the ball with Kirkwood (958 yards last year) sophomore Rodrick Williams (267 yards) and incoming freshman Berkley Edwards. The receiving corps should get a boost with the return of Jamel Harbison, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in last year’s season opener against UNLV.
Defensively, the Gophers need to replace five starters, but senior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman returned after considering a leap to the NFL. At 6-6, 313 pounds, the converted tight end recently bench pressed 465 pounds and posted a 37-inch vertical jump.
Hageman delivered the highlight of Saturday’s practice, the team’s first in full pads, when he exploded off the line and flattened offensive lineman Joe Bjorklund.
“I’m very proud of the fact [Hageman] took his offseason and made himself even better athletically, and he was pretty darn good athletically before that,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “He’s made himself better and developed himself into a leader.”
“We have not had a bell cow on defense,” Claeys added. “Even last year, Ra’Shede was still learning the game. He wasn’t truly a bell cow, and now, people are going to have to figure out what they can do to handle him.”
The Gophers also need to replace two starting linebackers and two starting cornerbacks, but Kill said he thinks they have the personnel to do it.
Junior college transfer Damien Wilson is off to a good start and will challenge redshirt freshman Jack Lynn for the starting middle linebacker job.
The Gophers also moved Derrick Wells from safety to cornerback, knowing they had other good safeties returning in Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson.
It didn’t take long for the battles between the first-team offense and first-team defense to emerge at full speed in spring practice. Kirkwood, a fourth-year junior, said the group is “more disciplined” and “more knowledgeable.”
What excites him most?
“How far we were along on just the first day of spring,” Kirkwood said. “It’s somewhat scary because I’ve never been a part of anything like this.”