Saturday's scrimmage in TCF Bank Stadium was billed as the best chance for some barely-beyond-senior-prom Gophers to convince coach Jerry Kill they can play football with the veterans, and a handful of freshmen took full advantage. Tailback David Cobb announced his presence among a crowded field of Duane Bennett backups by bouncing off tacklers or simply outrunning them. Receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts flashed some pass-catching ability for a coaching staff that already craves his zero-to-60 speed.
And quarterback Max Shortell once again displayed a calm, opportunistic grasp of the offense -- not to mention surprising swiftness up the field -- that even the starter he's chasing noticed.
"He had his day," MarQueis Gray said of his about-to-turn-19 understudy, "and soon I'll have mine."
The Gophers are hoping that day is Sept. 3, a season-opening date at USC that gives Gray only 10 more practices to iron out kinks in the passing game. The quarterback made noticeable strides in game management and especially in handling snaps from center, nearly eliminating a nagging problem that kept recurring in a previous scrimmage five days earlier.
Gray dropped only one snap early on, and the exchanges were nearly flawless in the latter half of the scrimmage. "We did a great job of it today," he said.
But perhaps nobody did a better job of getting noticed than Cobb -- for reasons good and bad. Kill screamed at the freshman after a missed block on a two-point conversion attempt, but the Texan bounced back with a series of impressive runs. One was a burst to the right edge that Cobb took 62 yards to the end zone, outrunning defensive backs who had an angle on him at the end.
"Cobb's had enough tail-end chewings from me over the last two weeks, and he's still surviving," Kill said. "But he's had a lot of reps due to an injury [to redshirt freshman Donnell Kirkwood], and he's taken advantage of it."
Crawford-Tufts, a former state champion sprinter from Edina, made a couple of catches across the middle to make a positive impression. "He got hit a little bit and kind of waddled over to the sideline, [then] came back out there," Kill said. "He showed me some toughness, which I think [is] important."
So is running ability, which Shortell displayed with a nice bootleg run that ushered him into the secondary untouched. Gray's elusiveness as a tuck-and-run weapon was rarely used Saturday, probably far less than it will be against the Trojans. And the starting quarterback threw an occasional floater, as if indecisive.
"Now I'm thinking too much," Gray said. "I'm just trying to get the thinking out of the way and just go out and have fun."
A crowd of almost 1,000 seemed to have fun, particularly during special-teams work. A 46-yard field goal by Chris Hawthorne drew loud applause, and Dan Orseske's 60-yard punt earned even bigger cheers. "There was a roar when we punted the football," Kill said. "I don't know if that's good or bad."