They looked big enough to play defensive end and fast enough for wide receiver, but when Maxx Williams and his positional counterparts lined up Friday, they were still technically playing tight end.
One of the most eye-opening sights at the Gophers’ first practice was the tight-end unit, which brims with so much size and athleticism, coach Jerry Kill is looking for ways to get more of them on the field.
Williams, who led the team in receiving last year, is back at full speed, showing no ill-effects of the left knee injury that kept him out for most of spring camp. Quarterback Mitch Leidner found Williams early and often in multiple drills Friday.
“He’s going to have a huge year,” Leidner said. “That guy’s a matchup nightmare for any linebacker or defensive back, for that matter.”
Tight end is becoming an increasingly athletic position throughout football — with Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham among the best NFL examples — and the Gophers have made the position a strong suit.
Even with Williams out this spring, the Gophers showed quality tight-end depth. Drew Goodger and Lincoln Plsek are solid blockers, Duke Anyanwu is one of the team’s most improved players, and Nate Wozniak has pass-catching skills no one would expect from a guy who stands 6-foot-10.
There are some true freshmen in the mix, too. Wayzata alum Brandon Lingen could redshirt this year, but then there are Jerry Gibson and Gaelin Elmore.
Gibson is a 6-3, 230-pound athlete from Theodore, Ala. He had an offer from Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, but still chose to come north to Minnesota. Gibson played tailback in high school, and the Gophers lined him up Friday at both fullback and wide receiver.
“He’s got the athletic ability where he is going to be a player,” Williams said.
Elmore is a 6-6, 260-pound man child from Somerset, Wis. He’s the first Wisconsin native in several years to come play for the Gophers, despite also having an offer from the Badgers. Elmore is another fullback candidate this year, but it’s clear watching him catch passes that his long-term future will be as a tight end in the Williams mold.
Last year, the Gophers liked what they got at fullback from the 5-11, 230-pound Mike Henry. He caught eight passes for 86 yards and did a fine job blocking.
“But we’d like to have that guy who can be a run threat, pass threat, physical and can split out,” Kill said. “Try to utilize their big bodies. Both of those kids [Gibson and Elmore] pass that bill. Get them on the field.”
• Cody Poock, who had surgery to repair a torn ACL in March, was cleared for noncontact drills. He looked like a potential starter at outside linebacker before the injury and still hopes to return for the Big Ten opener on Sept. 27 against Michigan.
• Jon Christenson, who broke his leg last November, was cleared to practice, and though he still has a ways to go, he will be competing for playing time at either guard or center.
• Wide receiver Conner Krizancic did not practice because of a hamstring injury. But fellow freshman Melvin Holland looks like another potential impact player, with good speed, route-running and pass-catching skills.
• The Gophers had to leave a few players off their 105-man preseason roster. Wide receiver Devon Wright and offensive lineman Kyle McAvoy were among those who didn’t make the cut.
• Linebacker Jephete Matlins has officially moved to fullback. He actually played there last year in practice and was named the team’s offensive scout team player of the year.