Thursday's spring-drills opener for the Gophers had little in common with their first spring practice of 2011, and the biggest change had nothing to do with the football team.
Last year, everyone was cooped up for two weeks in the tin shed next to the practice field, getting dripped on from the snow piled on the leaky roof and mostly sticking to a series of small-scale drills. This year, the 70-degree weather allowed everyone to stretch out outside, with room to practice everything the coaches wanted.
And practice they did, at a speed not much different than a midseason session, with two offenses alternating to keep the time between snaps at a minimum. The coaches know the players now, most of the players are far more familiar with what is expected of them, and it just appeared that the Gophers got so much more done today than during a typical spring practice a year ago.
"I didn't have to yell and scream to get them to hustle and get into place," coach Jerry Kill said. "The ones who have been here are a little more comfortable in what they're doing."
Kill had unsolicited praise for a handful of players, including former quarterback Moses Alipate, who as a 290-pound tight end is pretty eye-catching when he runs downfield in a pass pattern. Seems to have good hands, too; I watched him make a nice catch on a ball that was a little overthrown.
"I thought he did some good things for a kid that's never played the position," Kill said.
The coach also complimented James Gillum, the junior-college running back who arrived from Mississippi in January. "As practice went on, he kind of settled in," Kill said. "He's got some juice to him."
And defensive end Scott Ekpe, the freshman from Lewisville, Texas who just turned 18 last week, "did a really nice job for a freshman," Kill said. "He didn't seem like the transition was a big deal to him."
I was impressed with sophomore quarterback Max Shortell, who I wrote about in a story for tomorrow's paper. He's obviously matured in the past year, and his arm looks stronger. One throw early in practice seemed to take off on him, and he looked shocked when the ball sailed far over the receiver's head.
Plenty of people were watching freshman quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner, who had the normal first-day problems, fumbling the handoff to a back a couple of times, or overthrowing receivers.
One interesting drill was on special teams, where the coaches learned a few things themselves, Kill said. Under new rules going into effect this fall, every member of the kickoff team must line up within five yards of the line of scrimmage, thus eliminating the long, speed-building run-up to the ball. It makes things surprisingly cramped for the kicking team, and Kill noticed that "now your kicker's got to take a different approach and a different angle to the ball."
The Gophers will practice again Friday at 3:15 p.m. and Saturday at 10:15 a.m. All sessions are open to the public.