Toughness, physical play highlight Gophers scrimmage

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 15, 2013 - 12:34 AM

The defense handled the first-team offense in Friday’s scrimmage, showing Jerry Kill’s “mindest of toughness.”

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Gophers coach Jerry Kill, shown watching quarterback Philip Nelson earlier in spring practice, saw Nelson have some early difficulty against the first-team defense during Friday night’s scrimmage, but Kill said he had no second thoughts about removing Nelson’s redshirt tag last season.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER jeff.wheeler@ startribune.com ,

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Gophers coach Jerry Kill gathers his players for a meeting before each spring practice and delivers what he calls “The Daily News.”

He shows some quick video clips of the most recent practice, pointing out the good news and the bad. Then he establishes a word for the day. On Thursday, that word was toughness.

Kill opened the recent book “Toughness,” by ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas, and highlighted 12 quotes.

“As soon as spring ball ends, we’re bringing some special-forces people to help us,” Kill told reporters later that day. “So we’re going to do whatever it takes to get better. We have to develop a mindset here of toughness.”

The Gophers showed it Friday night in a spirited scrimmage at the Bierman indoor facility, where they’ve been cooped up for all nine spring practices. The first-team defense held the first-team offense without a first down twice, and redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner led the second-teamers on two quick touchdown drives.

Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson eventually got the first-team offense moving, but what stood out to the coaches was everyone’s tenacity.

“This has been more physical, definitely, than the first two springs we were here by a long shot,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.

With five more practices remaining before the annual spring game, on April 27, the Gophers know plenty of work remains, but there is no mistaking the growing optimism for a team that finished 3-9 and 6-7 in Kill’s first two seasons.

In a Big Ten teleconference Wednesday, a Nebraska reporter asked senior safety Brock Vereen how far away the Gophers were from becoming a factor in the Legends Division.

“I think we are closer than a lot of people think,” Vereen said. “If you look back to last season, a lot of those games were unfortunately lost in the fourth quarter. ... It’s about pushing through, which is something we learned the hard way. So we still have that chip on our shoulder of a three-win team [from 2011], but I think we’re going to shock some people this year.”

Three weeks into camp, here’s a sampling of the highlights:

Biggest surprise

Eric Murray has emerged as a starting cornerback after playing mostly on special teams last season. The 6-0, 194-pound sophomore from Milwaukee leapfrogged three cornerbacks who played important minutes last season after transferring from junior college — Martez Shabazz, Jeremy Baltazar and Briean Boddy.

“I think Eric Murray is a guy who a lot of people may not know about right now, but at the end of the season they will,” Vereen said.

Top offensive performer

Leidner outplayed Nelson in Friday’s scrimmage, but Nelson has had the better overall camp after starting the final seven games last year.

“You always get questions as a coach when you pull a redshirt off a kid,” Kill said. “But I think it’s proved out to be smart that we did that [with Nelson] because the experience he gained during the season — which was sometimes great experience and sometimes very difficult — has allowed him to be much more comfortable here in spring ball.”

Top defensive performer

Derrick Wells has made a seamless transition from safety to cornerback, allowing the Gophers to tap into their other depth at safety with Vereen, Cedric Thompson, Antonio Johnson and Demarius Travis.

But even in limited contact so far, 6-6, 311-pound defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman continues has separated himself as the team’s most imposing force.

“You can tell he’s hungrier than he’s ever been,” Vereen said. “He will definitely be a top playmaker for us.”

Health report

As expected, some Gophers have missed the entire spring, including offensive linemen Ed Olson (ankle surgery) and Zach Mottla (broken leg), defensive tackle Roland Johnson (knee surgery) and receiver Andre McDonald (personal reasons).

Devon Wright converted to receiver but has since been lost to shoulder surgery, and offensive lineman Jonah Pirsig missed the past week because of a left kneecap injury.

Beyond that, the Gophers have been mostly healthy. Wide receiver Jamel Harbison has been running well, seven months removed from reconstructive knee surgery.

Best moment

Every Gophers spring practice is open to the public, and the April 6 session had one of the biggest turnouts, with numerous high school coaches visiting during the state coaching clinic.

“Our kids — we had to make sure we settled some of them down,” Kill said. “It was an intense practice. This place was packed, and the kids got after each other. When you left, you said, ‘Hmmm, this is pretty good.’ ”

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