Gophers coach Jerry Kill played 11 true freshmen and six new junior college transfers last season, helping remake a team that finished 3-9 in 2011.
The decisions that drew the most scrutiny came midseason, when Kill pulled a potential redshirt from running back Rodrick Williams after five games, and did the same with quarterback Philip Nelson one week later.
Now, after a 6-7 finish last year — and another 2-6 mark in the Big Ten — the Gophers are counting on several newcomers again, especially at linebacker, where junior college transfers Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell are fighting for starting roles.
“We’ll need them to play well, all year long, for us to be good,” Kill said.
The list of potential new impact players includes three redshirt freshmen — wide receiver Jamel Harbison, linebacker Jack Lynn and tight end Maxx Williams — along with sophomore cornerback Eric Murray, who played primarily on special teams last season.
Here’s a list of players new to the Gophers in 2013 who could make an immediate impact:
LB Damien Wilson
The 6-2, 254-pounder from Gloster, Miss., and Lynn have been battling for the starting middle linebacker spot. Wilson transferred from Jones County (Miss.) Community College and enrolled in January, allowing him to go through spring practice. The more he learns the defensive schemes, the faster he seems to play.
The quote: “I think Damien’s really come on since coming here in the spring. He’s a physical specimen and really runs,” Kill said.
LB De’Vondre Campbell
The 6-5, 225-pound Fort Myers, Fla., native and transfer from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College has three years of eligibility remaining and will play weakside linebacker, where he’ll need to make open-field tackles. With his tall, athletic frame and long braided hair flowing from the back of his helmet, he looks like former QB MarQueis Gray at linebacker.
The quote: “De’Vondre can bend and can run and is long, and it’s hard to block him. He’s very focused, doesn’t mess around. Football’s important to him,” Kill said.
DE Hendrick Ekpe
The 6-5, 251-pounder from Lewisville, Texas, looks ready to step into the defensive end rotation, right behind redshirt sophomore Theiren Cockran and junior Michael Amaefula. Ekpe’s older brother, Scott, made four tackles for a loss last year as a true freshman, and the coaches see Hendrick coming on just as quickly.
The quote: “Every day Hank steps on the field, he gets five pounds bigger and faster and stronger,” Kill said.
RB Berkley Edwards
The 5-9, 190-pounder from Chelsea (Mich.) High School should give the Gophers a speedy, change-of-pace option behind battering ram running backs Williams and redshirt junior Donnell Kirkwood. Edwards, Michigan’s state champion last spring in the 100- and 200-yard dashes, can catch passes and return kicks, too.
The quote: “You take the wrong angle on him, you aren’t catching him. It’s as simple as that. That’s a different type of speed we haven’t seen,” Kirkwood said.