Mitch Leidner knew life without Maxx Williams and David Cobb would be difficult for the Gophers, but it didn’t quite hit the junior quarterback until the first day of captains’ practice, in late January.
“We were throwing [the ball] around, and we were like, ‘Holy Cow, we’ve got some work to do,’ ” Leidner said.
After five weeks of those player-led workouts, Leidner felt much better about the team’s 2015 prospects. By Tuesday night, after the team’s first official spring practice, he sounded as if he wished the Sept. 3 season opener against TCU were coming this weekend.
“I thought the guys did a good job today,” Leidner said. “It’s just something to keep building from, and keep building into the summer and into fall camp.”
After playing their first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962, the Gophers wasted little time opening spring practice. Sixty days after their Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri, they were back on the field for the first of 15 spring sessions each team is permitted under NCAA rules.
Michigan and Northwestern started last week, so the Gophers weren’t the first Big Ten team to open camp, but they joined Maryland and Nebraska as teams that began this week. Coach Jerry Kill started spring ball in early March last year and saw several benefits, including a longer window for injured players to heal before fall camp opens Aug. 1.
Dressed in a black sweatsuit, looking healthy and trim, Kill roamed the field inside the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex with an air of confidence. Entering his fifth season, Kill is coming off back-to-back 8-5 seasons, with last year bringing the Gophers’ first five-win Big Ten finish since 2003.
“Sometimes we don’t remember how far we’ve come,” Kill said. “When we first came here, I had to run all over the place to motivate people. I don’t think I had to raise my voice one time today, and I’m a pretty intense dude.
“Now, there will be a time during spring when I’ll have to, but not today.”
As Kill surveyed the field, he didn’t see Cobb in his familiar No. 27 jersey, the one the senior wore while rushing for 1,629 yards last year. But he did see an intriguing new tailback wearing No. 16 — highly touted 2014 recruit Jeff Jones.
Jones was academically ineligible to play coming out of high school but posted the grades he needed to become eligible during fall semester. Tuesday marked Jones’ first real football practice since November 2013, when he finished his senior season at Minneapolis Washburn.
He ran with determination every time he touched the ball, and hustled between drills, looking eager to learn every time running backs coach Pat Poore stepped in to offer instruction.
“We were going pretty fast-paced, and I didn’t see mental errors [from Jones],” Kill said. “I saw some technique errors — he hadn’t played in a long time — but he’s good in the football classroom. He learns quick, pays attention, listens — football’s important to him.
“He’s a perfectionist. I walked off and told him he did a good job. ‘No I didn’t, Coach.’ But his expectations are high, and it takes awhile to learn all that stuff.”
When Kill looked at his tight ends, he didn’t see Williams with his biceps bulging out of his No. 88 jersey, But he did see No. 81 Duke Anyanwu, a tight end coming back from knee surgery.
“It’s amazing, him coming back this quick,” Kill said of Anyanwu, who tore an ACL early last August. “He hasn’t lost one ounce of speed, I can tell you that — not one ounce.”
Granted, it was only one practice, but Kill seemed confident that this team can take more strides this year, even without some of last year’s biggest stars.
Edwards hurts hamstring
Berkley Edwards, another one of the tailbacks trying to take Cobb’s place, sprained a hamstring last week at the Big Ten indoor track and field championships and was unable to practice. Edwards reached the finals of the 60-meter dash but was unable to race in the finals.
Kill said he doesn’t regret giving Edwards the green light to compete in track.
“He could have been out riding a bicycle and tipped it over in the snow; he’ll be fine,” Kill said. “I wish he were [getting football reps] right now, but so does he. So I feel bad for him, but from what I understand [the injury’s] not serious. He didn’t pop it or anything, so I anticipate him being back. We’ll see.”