As season opens, Gophers seek offensive playmakers

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 28, 2014 - 9:28 AM

In his quest to become a better playmaker, Gophers wide receiver Donovahn Jones sidled up to one of the NFL’s best. Larry Fitzgerald was on campus this summer, running his annual camp, so Jones introduced himself and soaked up all the wisdom he could.

Fitzgerald’s advice?

“There’s nothing really stopping me from getting there besides me,” Jones said.

In other words, the talent is there if he can just find a way to maximize it. And therein lies the hope for Jones and several other key skill-position players much like him, as the Gophers open a new season Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium.

The opponent is Eastern Illinois, a team that went 12-2 last year and defeated San Diego State. But the Panthers are from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), so this should be an offensive showcase for the Gophers.

They did plenty of soul searching this offseason after going 13 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown late last season. They met with consultants, studied hundreds of hours of film, re-evaluated their schemes, added strength and speed, and practiced and practiced.

An offense that had been so integral to the team’s 8-2 start was the main culprit in the 0-3 finish against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Syracuse. The touchdown drought was even more exasperating for the Gophers because they kept reaching the red zone, kept getting chances to make plays and kept coming up short.

“The way I look at our offense right now, it’s like the Cheez-It commercial,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “You’ve got a doctor sitting there. He’s got the two spots [on his checklist] — ready or not ready. We’ve been kind of in that not-ready category.

“When those plays presented themselves — there weren’t a whole lot of them — but when they did, we didn’t take advantage. So instead of losing to Michigan State 14-3, we’ve got to find a way to make that a 17-14 game this year.”

One drive that summarized the drought can be found early in the fourth quarter of the Michigan State game, when the Gophers drove 77 yards on 17 plays. They had first-and-10 on the Spartans’ 11-yard line, but David Cobb was stuffed twice for no gain, and then Mitch Leidner was sacked and fumbled.

The ending to that sequence could have been prevented if someone, somewhere in the middle of that nine-minute, 21-second drive had broken a big one.

For the season, the Gophers ranked 100th out of 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with only 19 plays that gained at least 30 yards.

They hit too many opposite-field singles. They needed more home runs.

This year, they have strong depth at running back, with the speedy Berkley Edwards ready to enter the mix. They have a veteran offensive line that got beat up during training camp. They have a respected leader at quarterback, in Leidner, who just needs to overcome his inexperience. And they are loaded with tight ends with the hope of getting more from their wide receivers.

Will this offense be more explosive? Here are seven guys who hold the key:

Mitch Leidner

Sophomore QB

The stat: Of Leidner’s 78 passes last year, only two went for 30-plus-yard gains.

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