It’s about a month before the Gophers football team starts fall practice on Aug. 6 and two months before the team faces a real challenge Sept. 2 when it plays host to Texas Christian, a program ranked by many in the top five of the country.

But there is a lot of football talk around campus, and optimism that the Maroon and Gold can win the Big Ten’s Western Division despite one of the toughest schedules in the nation.

Coach Jerry Kill believes the Gophers will be much improved from a year ago, especially defensively. That’s a big statement when you consider that Urban Meyer, the coach of national champion Ohio State, ranked last year’s Gophers squad the best defense the Buckeyes faced all season.

So if quarterback Mitch Leidner can improve his passing and the Gophers can replace running back David Cobb and All-America tight end Maxx Williams, the combination of the great defense and an improved offense could make the Gophers tough to beat.

And if you take the word of offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, one of the strengths for the Gophers is going to be their offensive line, which has true depth at multiple positions.

“We’ve got Jonah Pirsig at right tackle, who really came on strong and had a good second half last year and got comfortable,” Limegrover said. “He had been splitting time with Ben Lauer and then took over that right tackle spot himself and did a great job. Josh Campion, who is literally and figuratively the graybeard of the group, he has been a three-year starter for us, started at right tackle and last year at left tackle and for the foreseeable future we’re going to move him down inside to guard. Jon Christenson is back off of his devastating leg injury and the broken leg, and he is feeling great and moving around. Joe Bjorklund, who started most of the last probably two-thirds of the season for us at guard is back.

“Ben Lauer, who was a freshman All-American at left tackle [in 2013] and got snake bit with the injury situation last year between a high ankle sprain and then mono at the end of the year, [it was] kind of a lost year for him; he is back and healthy and doing some great things in the offseason. … Connor Mayes, a young pup who played as a freshman for us, and when we went back and watched film, he really did a nice job in the time he was in there. Brian Bobek is another guy that injuries have really had the best of him most of his career, he is healthy and got through spring and did some good things. We finally have some depth and are going to have some tremendous competition there this fall.”

Move helps all

In moving Campion, Limegrover said the Gophers are just shifting their most versatile offensive lineman so that other players can move to more natural positions, giving the offense a true advantage.

“We moved him to right guard; people may think, ‘Why, if he was playing left tackle, not move him to left guard?’ ” Limegrover said. “But he actually has more experience in his career on the right side. He feels a little more comfortable in a righthanded stance, and in making that transition, one thing I try to do is make him feel as comfortable as possible in that transition, and I felt like that would be a good spot for him.

“What that also does is allows us, Joe Bjorklund was playing a little out of position, and he feels more comfortable at left guard and he was playing right guard for us last year. The great thing about a kid like Jon Christenson is he’s so versatile, he just looks at me and says, ‘Wherever you want me, center, left guard,’ so it fits with the guys and giving them the best chance to play their best football if we do it this way.”

Why is Campion better there than at tackle?

“Believe me, as you go back and watch film, he was pretty darn good at tackle,” Limegrover said. “If we need to, the great thing about Josh is we know he can go back out and play tackle. Now believe it or not, you know Josh will measure in probably right at 6-5, but when you’re lining up against who we have to line up against every week in the Big Ten, everybody has the same idea. They all want to get guys like [6-6 defensive end] Theiren Cochran, who we have, the guys with a lot of length, long arms. And when you’re playing tackle and those guys are rushing off the edge at you, they love to get at your shoulders and get at your body and use their length to get around you.

“Sometimes, Josh — that was the one area where he struggled a little bit, is he doesn’t have the longest arms and he’s not the tallest. Those guys could get to him and that made it a little tough on him. But when you have a guy like Jonah Pirsig, who is 6-9 with long arms; Ben Lauer is 6-7, bordering on 6-8; a couple young kids that have some height, it just felt like Josh fit better inside. That gives us a chance to put Ben Lauer and Jonah Pirsig on the same field, as well.”

If you want to be more optimistic, there were 10 freshmen who played last year for the Gophers, and those freshmen are going to be a lot better with a year of experience.

So buy your tickets, because while the Gophers lost at TCU 30-7 last year with five Gophers turnovers making a big difference in the score, the fact they will face the Horned Frogs at TCF Bank Stadium should help the offense do a better job of protecting the ball. The best Gophers defense in years could result in an upset.

Jottings

• The west elevation of the Vikings’ new U.S. Bank Stadium, where the bank’s logo will be placed, is going to be 103 feet, 7 inches high and 33-3 wide. It will be made from brushed aluminum.

• Apparently, Jarvis Johnson, the standout DeLaSalle product who is enrolled in summer school at Minnesota but can’t play basketball for the Gophers because he wasn’t medically cleared to compete, is happy to just be a part of the program and won’t take advantage of the opportunity to play elsewhere if he could pass a physical there.

• Tony “Bones” Davis, who played for the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1950s, is now 81 years old and will play in the U.S. Senior Games in Minnesota this week. Davis is 6-10 and still holds the single-game scoring record of 45 points at the University of Hawaii.

• Former Twins reliever and Park Center High School product Pat Neshek is having a great season for the Houston Astros, the best team in the American League. Neshek is 3-1 overall with a 2.70 ERA and a 0.800 WHIP, which would be the third-lowest total of his career. The 34-year-old has 28 strikeouts in 30 innings pitched, and his 34 games pitched are the most on the squad.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com