The nice weather brought out a decent crowd for Gophers football practice on Thursday, probably the largest so far except for the first day and the Saturday scrimmage. Included in the throng was a football celebrity, former Jaguars defensive end Paul Spicer, who came by to say hello to Jerry Kill.
"He's like a son to me," the Gophers coach said of Spicer, who made 28.5 sacks in a 10-year NFL career.
Spicer played for Kill at Saginaw Valley State, the Gopher coach's first stop as a head coach, in the mid-1990s.
"That's a pretty good-looking Division II football player," Kill joked. "I look at him and say, 'We should have won a few more games.' "
It was a fairly uneventful day on the practice field, with a lot of time spent on the kicking game. A handful of notes from a breezy day:
-- Kill said he's seeing progress, though it's slow. "We've taken infant steps, not baby steps," he said. "There have been a lot of guys who have gotten a little better. The defense, I really notice them taking strides."
-- The lack of healthy receivers means the six who are practicing are getting more work than anyone else on the field, and Kill said he can tell. "They're very physically tired," he said. "We're not slowing down, though. We'll find out who's going to be tough in that group."
None of the receivers has stepped forward to stake a claim to a first-team job alongside Da'Jon McKnight, Kill said. "That's just a thin group, athletic-wise, talent-wise," he said. "We're using some tight ends in the passing game to help out."
-- Aaron Hill made the day's biggest play during team drills, stepping in front of receiver Marcus Jones to pick off a MarQueis Gray pass, then romping down the sideline into the end zone. Gray also fumbled a snap, but continued to look like he's adjusting well to the new offense.
-- Another impressive moment: sophomore defensive lineman Eric Jacques leaping into the air to bat down a Tom Parish pass.
-- I wrote about guard Chris Bunders, who has started more games than any current Gopher, for Friday's paper. Bunders believes the line is going to be a strength of the team this year. When I mentioned that Gray's scrambling ability might take some of the pressure off the line, he agreed that it could help the offense, but his teammates' approach is that they're protecting a statue who shouldn't have to run.
"As far as pass pro(tection) goes, if he doesn't have to move an inch, that's what we want," Bunders said. "If he makes something happen when a play breaks down, that's good, but as far as I'm concerned, we want to allow him to drop back, take his set and throw the ball."
-- The Gophers passed the halfway point of spring practices on Thursday, with seven more sessions (including the spring game) to go. Next practice is at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in TCF Bank Stadium.
-- I'm on Twitter: @MillerStrib.