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Spring football: Defense holds Gophers without big-play day

  • Blog Post by: Phil Miller
  • March 31, 2012 - 7:52 PM

     The forecast called for sunny and 70, but the Gophers got 45 and windy on Saturday. Maybe it depressed the offense.
     The Gophers' defense had a good day on the turf of TCF Bank Stadium, where roughly 500 spectators, including dozens of high school football coaches who took part in a clinic Saturday morning, watched the Gophers run their first full-tackling scrimmage of the spring.
     The drives didn't include many memorable plays, which was Tracy Claeys' goal as the day began. "We kept the ball in front of us. I was pleased with that," Minnesota's defensive coordinator said. "We made a big emphasis out of containment, of keeping everything in front. That's what it's going to take for us to win, and we didn't have any big plays today."
     Of course, part of the reason was by design -- Claeys and coach Jerry Kill wanted to gauge the tackling ability of their secondary, so the quarterbacks were instructed to look for quick, short passes.
     "A year ago, we didn't tackle in the secondary as well as we needed to. So we designed the practice for a lot of quick-throwing balls -- get the ball out, get it on the edge fast -- so we could see the corners and the safeties tackle," Claeys said. "I don't think we missed too many today. I'm pretty pleased with how those guys did."
     In fact, the biggest play of the practice was a defensive one. With MarQueis Gray at quarterback (and under pressure several times from a juiced-up pass rush), defensive end Ben Perry suddenly dropped into coverage on a zone blitz.
     Consider Gray surprised.
     "He got me on that play. I'm not going to make any excuse -- he made a good play," Gray said of the throw, which landed directly in Perry's arms and, with the defensive howling from the sideline, was quickly turned into a touchdown by the sophomore. "Otherwise, I would have said I didn't get a good grip on the ball or I wouldn't have thrown it to him. But he made a good play -- and it won't happen again."
     Well, "don't let it happen again" is sort of the point of spring practice, a chance for coaches to iron out all the mistakes. For instance, on the first play of the 11-on-11, running back David Cobb was stopped at the line of scrimmage, and Kill, upset at the route he took, screamed, "Vertical! Vertical! Vertical!" before quickly subbing in James Gillum.
     Gray and sophomore Max Shortell got most of the snaps, as usual, but freshman Philip Nelson got an unusually long look on Saturday, too. My initial impression was that he seemed to be rushing on a lot of plays, but perhaps that had something to do with the short-pass emphasis. And when Nelson tucked the ball and ran, he displayed surprisingly quick feet for a 225-pound quarterback.
     Other observations:
     -- A big hit on a running back by linebacker Lamonte Edwards;
     -- An interception by Mike Rallis during the skelly drills (I think it was Rallis; my view was blocked by a high-school coach who I assume once played offensive line);
     -- A series of mediocre (or worse) punts during special teams, a situation not helped by the wind, but one that has to worry Kill;
     -- A sack and forced fumble by defensive end Thieren Cockran, who appeared embarrassed (or worried that he was in trouble) after accidentally running into Shortell;
     -- The presence of ex-Gophers Kim Royston and Duane Bennett, the latter of whom joined the running backs in their post-practice huddle to offer some suggestions;
     -- Claeys walking the half-mile to the stadium from his office before practice, rather than riding with the team;
     -- And, as several observers have noticed this spring, defensive lineman Scott Epke sure doesn't look like an 18-year-old freshman.
     The Gophers get two days off now before resuming spring drills at 3:15 p.m. Tuesday on their Gibson-Nagurski practice field.

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