The Gophers completed their 15 days of spring practice with the spring game Saturday, and coach Jerry Kill said he knows that if the team is going to improve this season, it is going to need a more effective passing game.
The Gophers play Ohio State and Texas Christian this season, and if they want to compete with those two teams, which will be two of the top teams in the country in preseason polls, they are going to have to throw the ball well.
I’ll leave it to you to conclude whether passing 28-for-50 for 182 yards in a long scrimmage Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium is an improvement over last year. No. 1 quarterback Mitch Leidner completed five of 11 passes for 53 yards, No. 2 Chris Streveler was 11-for-20 for 73 yards, and Conor Rhoda was the best at 12-for-19 for 56 yards.
“If we want to take the next step and get more wins, it’s going to have to [improve],” Kill said of the passing game. “We can’t lose our identity of who we are, we’re going to run the football, but at the same time if we can be like we were — turnover-free and play like we did when we played Missouri [in the Citrus Bowl], rush for about 200-250 and pass for another 200, have about 450 yards of offense, that’s a pretty good day.
“That’s something we need to work towards. I thought we did a good job in the bowl game except turning the ball over. I felt like we could have run it a little bit better. But any coach would like to have a little bit of balance in that. But our identity is running the football, but I think we win two or three more games last year if we throw it a little bit better. That’s our fault, nobody else’s, not the kids’ fault.”
The Gophers finished 12th out of 14 teams in passing offense in the Big Ten last season, throwing for only 147.2 yards per game. That number is going to have to improve next season.
Redshirts will contribute
A number of Gophers freshmen were held out of action last year. Apparently a number of those first-year players did well in spring practice.
“We’re going to have some contributions from the receivers, and Isaiah Gentry has had a good spring — however he hasn’t practiced lately because of a slight pulled hamstring — I think we can get him back,” Kill said. “Desmond Gant has had a concussion, so we wish he had more spring, but you have to take care of that, which he is. Melvin Holland, all of those guys. Jeff Jones has been playing running back and tailback.”
Will Jones, the former Minneapolis Washburn running back who is one of the top recruits on the team, play as a slot receiver? “He’s learning both positions and has the ability to do both if we need to, but he talked to me about playing receiver and having an opportunity to do that,” Kill said. “I said, ‘You bet, let’s see how you do.’ As an experimental phase he has done well at both of them.
“We need to get him a lot more reps at wide receiver, I’d even like to see him play outside a little bit. We’re trying to get — I learned a long time ago that you have to get your best people on the field. You don’t want to get beat having somebody standing on the sideline next to you. We need to use our talent better, certainly from the offensive side of the ball. … If we can get some guys that have the flexibility to do that, then we start August 1 camp, we go, ‘OK this is what we’re going to do to get our best players on the field.’ That’s what spring is for.”
One individual who had a good spring is Berkley Edwards, who might be the fastest player on the squad. He might win one of the sprint positions on the men’s track and field team.
“I think he’s understanding how to play running back,” Kill said. “He has gotten the reps running the ball. The running backs have really done a nice job.”
Offensive line a strength
Bleacher Report recently ranked the best offensive lines in the Big Ten next season and had the Gophers at third.
“The combinations, we may play Jon Christenson at guard, just according to how the competition at center is going, then John could play center,” Kill said. “A lot of that has to be determined, but that’s something that could happen, and so forth. But we feel good about that.
“And one kid I failed to mention that I think has really shown up is Nate Wozniak, our tight end. He’s really playing well. He’s made a few mental errors, but at 6-10 and 265-270 pounds right now, he has had a really good spring.”
Kill was asked if there are any positions where he’s worried about depth.
“In the spring I worry about all of them,” he said, before adding, “I think our depth is going to be good in every position. I always worry about the defensive line. I worried about it last year and we played a lot of freshmen there. I always worry about depth in the offensive line. But we recruited a bunch of it.”
Urban Meyer, who coached Ohio State to the national championship, told more than one person that the Gophers had the best defense of any team the Buckeyes played last year. The big question will be whether the passing game improves.
• Former Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder talked to Raiders.com about the fact that even though he is only 27 years old, he will be Oakland’s oldest quarterback with Derek Carr 24 and Matt McGloin 25. “It’s an interesting change,” Ponder said. “I think I’ve always been in a quarterback room where there was a guy older than me. It’s only going to be my fifth year, and to be the veteran it’s kind of funny. Time flies, it’ll be a fun role to have.”
• According to the website Man Games Lost, which tracks total games missed by players, the Timberwolves had the most games missed by players of any team in the NBA at 394 entering Friday. The second-highest total was the Houston Rockets at 372.
• While the Twins are supposedly in the middle of a youth movement, ESPN reported that the team is actually the seventh-oldest in all of baseball with a median age of 28.9 years old. They are the oldest team in the AL Central, with the next oldest being the Detroit Tigers at 28.5 years old, ranking 15th in the majors.
• The great play of Apple Valley’s Tyus Jones in leading Duke to the NCAA championship was reminiscent of Khalid El-Amin’s run in the 1999 NCAA tournament when the Minneapolis North product led Connecticut past Duke 77-74 for the title. Now 35, El-Amin is playing for BG Goettingen in the Germany BBL this year and is having another solid season overseas, averaging 14.2 points, 4.8 assists and 2.2 rebounds.
• The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament is taking place in Virginia this weekend and the Gophers’ Mo Walker and Andre Hollins are participating. Portsmouth gathers college seniors to showcase their ability for NBA scouts before the draft. Draft Express has Hollins listed as the 28th-best senior in the draft, though his odds of getting selected are low. Walker is rated 34th.