Even with David Cobb and Maxx Williams, the Gophers still hit some untimely offensive ruts last season.
They had a scoreless first half at Texas Christian and a scoreless first quarter that led to a deflating loss at Illinois. They grabbed a 17-3 lead at Wisconsin, then sputtered on seven of their final eight drives. And they failed to score after taking a 19-17 third-quarter lead over Missouri in the Citrus Bowl.
The coaches did some soul searching after the bowl game and realized it was time for change. A team that prided itself on winning the time-of-possession battle — keeping the opposing offense off the field — figured that methodical one-tracked approach could take them only so far.
So with Cobb and Williams headed for the NFL, the Gophers have spent spring camp working almost exclusively on a no-huddle attack. They’ve sped up the pace and worked more on short, quick-passing routes designed to get the ball out of quarterback Mitch Leidner’s hands quicker. It’s definitely a work in progress, but the Gophers feel good about what they’ve accomplished heading into Saturday’s spring game at TCF Bank Stadium.
“I’m surprised by how quickly we’ve learned,” coach Jerry Kill said. He added that a recent scrimmage left him “in shock at how far along we were, to be honest with you.”
But Kill has seen some ugly moments this spring, too. He said the team’s defense is ahead of the offense, which is often the case in spring practice. The Gophers hope for a strong finish Saturday, when they take about 90 snaps in an offense vs. defense scrimmage format at the stadium.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “I mean, we basically are trying to implement something that’s completely new. We basically said we’re going to start from scratch.”
The Gophers felt like they had the personnel to try something new this spring. They miss Williams, but they look less reliant on their tight ends now. Their receiving corps is more athletic, if still raw, with the addition of redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and Melvin Holland Jr.
They’re confident they’ll still be able to run the ball with Rodrick Williams, Rodney Smith and Berkley Edwards. And they’ve added a Percy Harvin-type weapon with Jeff Jones at slot receiver.
“We’ve got a pretty good stable of [running backs] that are all different but pretty special in their own way,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “Now you’ve just got to be able to do some other things when you’re not able to [run the ball], and be good at that, too.”
The Gophers rode Cobb hard last year, but when teams slowed him, they generally stopped Minnesota. Leidner ranked 117th in the nation among full-time quarterbacks with a 51.5 completion percentage.
Sometimes, the Gophers let defenses apply too much pressure. Sometimes, Minnesota’s receivers dropped passes. Sometimes, the throws the coaches asked Leidner to make were difficult. And sometimes, he was pressing so hard, he couldn’t even make simple throws.
The Citrus Bowl was different. Leidner, who’d completed just 37 percent of his passes in the previous three games, threw his first pass incomplete against Missouri.
Then Maxx Williams ran a wheel route, and Leidner hit him for a simple, 7-yard gain. That started a string of 14 consecutive completions. By the middle of that stretch, Leidner was pinpointing the easy passes, and the tough ones, too.
This spring the Gophers have worked extensively on bubble screens to Jones and Co., along with short buttonhooks and slants to receivers such as KJ Maye and Eric Carter.
“I feel like we’ve taken a huge step,” Leidner said. “Getting the ball out quicker has helped us a lot, and being able to get those easy passes that a lot of other teams in the country and the conference get.”
The Gophers still aren’t sure how much they’ll use the no-huddle during the season, but they’re glad they’ve added it to their tool belt. It’s nice knowing they can play faster when they want to, which will keep defenses guessing. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has told Kill what a challenge it is stopping offenses that can change tempo on the fly.
“It’s a great deal because you’re learning to play fast and going through the road bumps now,” Zebrowski said. “Hopefully, the growing pains we’re going through now, some of those things are going to help us in the long run.”