There's only so much a coach can learn during spring football practice. Some players still are healing, most freshmen haven't arrived, and scrimmaging with teammates months before the season opener comes nowhere close to replicating the intensity of a fall football Saturday.
But that doesn't mean the process of finding answers to nagging questions can't begin.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill will hold the first of 15 spring practices Thursday, hoping to sort out who he can count on this fall and who he can't. A few of his priorities:
1 MarQueis Gray is the quarterback, right?
Well, sort of. Kill was definitive that the senior incumbent is his presumed starter -- but he made it clear that "there's competition" for the job.
"If there are three guys back there and somebody outperforms them," Kill said, "you're going to play the best player."
It seems unlikely Kill would demote a player who accounted for 2,461 yards last season (including 966 on the ground, more than any Big Ten quarterback except Michigan's Denard Robinson). "I'm looking forward to seeing his progression, I really am," the coach said.
But the competition for places in line behind Gray might be the most intriguing of camp. Max Shortell earned snaps in eight games as a true freshman, and now he's got a couple more precocious freshmen to hold off. Kill said Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson, each of whom enrolled in January, "have done an outstanding job in the off-season. ... At quarterback, we have recruited very well. I feel comfortable with that."
2 So who will carry the ball, besides Gray?
No returning running back carried the ball more than 63 times last year, so this might be the most wide-open job on the roster, especially considering Kill's run-first inclinations. Donnell Kirkwood is the nominal incumbent, but Kill on Wednesday was touting sophomore David Cobb's progress in the weight room -- he's up to 220 pounds and is healthy again, after his freshman season was disrupted by a hamstring injury. Then there's James Gillum, who gained more than 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast.
"You don't bring in a junior-college tailback to stand beside Coach Kill on Saturdays," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "We feel he's an SEC-caliber back. The best ones are the ones who you can hand the ball to and you don't have to tell him where the holes are, and that's James."
3 Is there a middle linebacker?
Not an obvious one, yet. Gary Tinsley handled the great majority of snaps last year, and led the Gophers in sacks with four, but he was a senior. Junior Aaron Hill is in line for the job, but a young player could step in, too. Keep an eye on Jephte Matilus and Peter Westerhaus, each a redshirt freshman, to challenge Hill.
4 Will anybody make an impact on the defense?
Tenth in sacks (19), 12th in interceptions and turnover ratio, the Gophers are begging for someone to make big drive-killing plays. Their best bets may be the development of defensive ends Ben Perry and Michael Amaefula, but moving Brock Vereen to safety and James Manuel to weakside linebacker should juice up their speed. And senior cornerback Troy Stoudermire, returning from a broken arm, suggests another candidate: Himself.
"I'm very, very, very excited to get back out there and make plays," he said. "I want to make something happen."
5 So are these guys going to be any good?
The players say they see evidence of a turnaround, that Kill and his staff have provided stability and a discernible blueprint for success. Attitudes and work ethic, according to senior linebacker Mike Rallis, are greatly improved, though he admits that skeptics have no reason to believe anything but the 3-9 record at the moment.
"The fans [have] heard it for a lot of years, that this year is going to be different, [that] this is the year," Rallis said. "There's not too much I can say to them other than, come season time, we'll be ready to go."