The flight home from the Texas Bowl was hard enough for the Gophers last December following a disappointing loss to Syracuse. Knowing tight end Maxx Williams had suffered a knee injury in the waning seconds only made it worse.
Williams was one of their best weapons last year, even as a redshirt freshman, and the coaches worried he might have a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The relief was palpable when an MRI exam showed the Waconia native wouldn’t need surgery.
After a few weeks rehabbing a strained medial collateral ligament, Williams resumed his usual workouts. On Tuesday, he looked dangerous as ever as the Gophers opened spring practice.
The team ran only a few 11-on-11 drills, but it was enough time for Mitch Leidner to connect with Williams for three long passes, including two that went for touchdowns.
It was a familiar pattern, with Williams running straight up the field, separating from his defender and looking up to find a tight spiral from Leidner. Those two are roommates and both are redshirt sophomores.
“I’ve said [Williams] is going to be a great player,” coach Jerry Kill said. “He’ll play at the next level, as long as he stays healthy.”
After wide receiver Derrick Engel suffered a torn ACL last November, Williams wound up leading the Gophers with 25 receptions for 417 yards and five touchdowns. Those might not be gaudy numbers, but Williams would have been hard to replace this year if the knee injury had been more serious.
“The kid’s special,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “We know it. Our opponents know it. Outside observers know it. He’s a kid that there’s just something about him that they don’t come along like him all the time.”
Williams’ parents were Gophers athletes. His mother, Rochelle, was a four-year letter winner in volleyball. His father, Brian, was a first-round draft pick who played 10 years as a center for the New York Giants.
Brian Williams appeared on the verge of tears after the bowl game, as he walked with Maxx back to the team bus. The MRI brightened everyone’s spirits.
“That was a great moment,” Maxx Williams said. “I found out it wasn’t my ACL, and I knew it was just going to be some rehab, no surgery, and all that.
“It took me a little while to start feeling good, but I was feeling good [Tuesday]. And I’m looking forward to the rest of spring ball.”
The Gophers know the offense needs work this spring. Tuesday seemed like a good start, with Leidner looking much more comfortable and confident than he did last spring, when he was backing up Philip Nelson.
Now that Nelson has transferred to Rutgers, Leidner is the clear No. 1 quarterback.
“Our whole football team has gotten better because of Mitch,” Kill said. “When he came back from the bowl game, he was working the next day. And he’s taking care of everybody — defense, offense, everything.”
The Gophers don’t have another quarterback besides Leidner who’s taken a college snap. Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler, who is coming back from right hand surgery, doesn’t have the same zip on his passes as Leidner. And true freshman Dimonic Roden-McKinzy had some expected first-day jitters Tuesday.
“I think there’s a learning curve with the speed of the game,” Kill said. “I thought [Roden-McKinzy] did a nice job, and Mitch has got to continue to coach those guys. Streveler’s the one, coming off his hand surgery, I thought he looked really sharp, but he’s been here a year and a half. He was much more poised.”
The Gophers hope all their quarterbacks keep gaining confidence. Having Williams around as a primary target should only help.