Gophers back, don't miss a beat

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2012 - 10:14 PM

At the team's first on-field practice, players looked comfortable and confident as coach Jerry Kill began preparing for his second season.

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With arms raised, Gopher players cheered the start as the University of Minnesota football team went through their first day of practice at the U of M football complex Saturday.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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The first day of football practice doesn't even feel like the first day anymore. It's a new season, a new team, but the Gophers, in coach Jerry Kill's second year, have developed some continuity. They've settled into a year-round rhythm that enables them to pick up in August as though it was April or October.

"I feel comfortable with the system. I know the plays," tailback James Gillum, a supposed "newcomer" who has been on campus for seven months already, said Saturday after the Gophers' first fall practice. "I didn't have to think about what I had to do, so I feel like we're going to move in a positive way now."

That's the idea, with 26 days left until kickoff in Las Vegas. The Gophers have 36 new players, but if anybody felt any hesitation about what's expected of them, it didn't show. Freshmen Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison caught passes alongside their veteran counterparts, young linebacker Nick Rallis executed all the drills that his senior-year brother Mike handled at linebacker, and nobody stopped to ask what to do next.

"It's year two, and being able to get through all those humps [helps]. Those kids knew what our tempo needed to be," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "We could spend less time harping on them about things. And that's when you know you're climbing that ladder."

MarQueis Gray threw the ball with obvious confidence, while the three teenagers who will battle to back him up at quarterback tried to imitate his cool. Since all three -- sophomore Max Shortell and freshmen Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner -- took part in spring practice, the session appeared entirely routine.

Same story with the running backs, at least six of whom can harbor legitimate hopes of playing this year. Gillum, a quiet Louisianan who transferred from Mississippi Gulf Coast junior college, is the presumed frontrunner for a starting spot, but none of the backs who were here last year are conceding the job.

"We all want to play football. It's a mentality with all the running backs, that we want to beat him out," said Donnell Kirkwood, a sophomore who owns the only three Gophers touchdowns scored by a current tailback. "But we're best of friends. We hang out on weekends, hang out on weekdays, go into the locker room and laugh."

Kirkwood got support from Duane Bennett, last year's starter, too. "He's one of my mentors," Kirkwood said. "He's a play-smart running back."

Gillum gained 2,339 yards in junior college, in part by hitting holes right up the middle, his favorite play. "In between the tackles -- it was a good play," said Gillum, listed at 5-11 and 204 pounds.

To hold off Kirkwood, Devon Wright, David Cobb and a couple of freshmen for the starting job, Gillum knows physical play isn't enough. "I feel like I can bring a lot of different things" to the offense, he said. "I can be a power back. I can catch it out of the backfield. I can break loose from a defender. I feel like I'm an all-around back."

Will that make him the starter? Even Limegrover is curious.

"Everyone wants to know, 'Hey, who are you going to give the ball to?' The great thing about competition is, sometimes you don't have to make that choice," he said. "Either that choice will make itself, or you've got a group of guys [so good] that you can't make it. That's a good thing."

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