LAS VEGAS - When Derrick Wells spotted Nick Sherry's target and raced over to make a decisive interception in the third overtime of the Gophers' victory on Thursday night, he had one goal in mind.

"Pick six," the sophomore said with a smile. "Pick six, all the way."

He juked and cut through a couple of tackles, but was ultimately brought down short of midfield. Not that it mattered; the game would have ended right there had Wells gone 100 yards, but instead, the Gophers merely ran three plays and kicked a game-winning field goal.

Too bad. A length-of-the-field touchdown would have been the perfect punctuation to Wells' otherwise loud-and-clear message: He can play.

"He's a big-time player, I've said it all along," coach Jerry Kill said of the cornerback-turned-safety. "The good thing is, he proved it on game night."

And he wasn't the only one. The Gophers' harder-than-it-needed-to-be 30-27 victory at UNLV in the season opener was heartening enough for the escape Minnesota pulled off. But even better was the debut of a handful of freshmen and sophomores, young players who already are visibly increasing the talent level in the program.

"The best thing is, we got to find out about some kids [while still] winning the game," Kill said.

"We played a lot of young people."

Young people like Scott Ekpe, an 18-year-old defensive tackle who made a couple of tackles and helped the defensive front keep pressure on Sherry, UNLV's quarterback. Or like Josh Campion, a Fergus Falls, Minn., graduate who made his collegiate debut as the starting right tackle. Or Cedric Thompson, a 19-year-old safety who recorded the first two tackles of his career.

Or K.J. Maye and Andre McDonald, freshmen who combined for four catches, 30 yards, and plenty of look-at-him-go moments. Unfortunately for the Gophers, they lost another standout freshman receiver to a season-ending knee injury when Jamel Harbison tore his right anterior cruciate ligament.

"We got behind some people tonight with some speed, so that's encouraging. We've just got to get our timing down and execute better," Kill said. "We ran by some people."

Then there are Wells and Brock Vereen, not really newcomers, but new nonetheless. The Gophers took a risk in the offseason by moving those two capable cornerbacks -- Vereen started all 12 games at corner last season -- to safety. They seemed to adapt quickly during the spring, but "you just don't know until they're covering someone else's offense," Kill said.

Now they know.

Vereen intercepted a Sherry pass at the Gophers 14-yard line in the first quarter, snuffing a likely scoring drive. He also made four tackles.

And Wells? It was practically graduation day out there.

"I felt like I had to prove myself, [in my] first game at safety," he said. "I felt like I had to make a point."

Consider it made. Wells was arguably the Gophers' MVP in the opener, and he felt comfortable right away in his new position.

"I like [safety] better. I think I get more action playing safety," he said after his first career start.

"I get coverages, I get a couple blitzes, I'm in the box more, making tackles. Making plays."

He made a lot of them, but especially a pair of interceptions, both of them critical. The first, midway through the fourth quarter of a tie game, set up a go-ahead field goal. And the second basically won the game.

It came in the third overtime, in the end zone, and enabled the Gophers to simply kick a field goal on their possession for the victory. In a game when some of the team's few seniors made notable mistakes, Wells and the youth brigade provided plenty of optimism about the future.

"He's a special player," Kill said. "I'm pretty excited."