Freshmen and transfers are challenging for starting spots and playing time at several key positions.
Gophers coaches are using freshman Donovahn Jones (4) more at wide receiver than quarterback, believing he’s too good an athlete to keep on the sidelines. Jones was fourth on the depth chart at quarterback but could see time at receiver.
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.
WR/QB Donovahn Jones
The 6-3, 190-pound Stockbridge, Ga., native could give the Gophers the deep threat they’ll need with Devin Crawford-Tufts concentrating on track and Andre McDonald suspended for another violation of team rules.
Jones is behind Nelson, redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and freshman Chris Streveler on the quarterback depth chart, so his quickest way onto the field is at receiver.
The quote: “At [Friday’s] practice, he just made three or four unbelievable football plays,” Kill said. “We’ve spent more time with him at receiver, and we’ve got to sell out and get him to learn receiver; he’s just too good of an athlete.”
Other top newcomers
K/P Ryan Santoso
The Gophers gave him a scholarship, and he’s a candidate to handle kickoffs, field goals and/or punts. Senior Chris Hawthorne might take the field-goal duties, leaving the rest to Santoso.
WR Eric Carter
The Lakeland, Fla., native made a good first impression as a playmaker early in preseason camp.
WR Drew Wolitarsky
California’s career leading high school receiver has been slowed in camp because of a hamstring injury.
CB Jalen Myrick
Could play on special teams this year, as Murray did last year before becoming a starter at cornerback.
S Daletavious McGhee
Senior safety Brock Vereen said McGhee already is one of the hardest hitters on the team.
The Gophers are deep at safety, but McGhee could see time on special teams.
LB De’Niro Laster
He has the size (6-4, 230 pounds) and skill to contribute this year, but he missed time during camp because of a knee injury.
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