The Golden Gopher football team practiced in full-pads for the first time this spring during Tuesday’s practice. An extra amount of intensity was added to Coach Kill’s already-demanding practice regimen. Hitting occurred early and often. Kill liked the energy the players exerted in the 4th of 15 spring practices.
The practice featured the “board drill” which matches up an offensive and defensive player one-on-one. The players must use their hands and feet while using proper technique to gain an edge on their competitor, ideally resulting in their opponent being forced to the ground. The drill is meant to simulate trench play at the line of scrimmage. It teaches offensive lineman correct blocking procedures and hand position, while teaching defensive lineman effective pass rushing methods and how to get off blocks. Of the battles that took place during practice there was one that stood out. Jonathon Ragoo, who is 6-7, 391 pounds, found out the hard way that sound technique beats sheer size. Keanon Cooper, a 6 foot, 217-pound linebacker, laid Ragoo on his back after he used his speed and leverage to knock over the redshirt freshman tackle. Kill gave Ragoo an earful and made him redo the drill. The drill will be a key factor in determining who will earn starting jobs on the offensive and defensive line, especially at defensive end.
Another drill Kill ran was a punt-blocking drill. The drill, which teaches players the correct way to block a punt, results in punters taking the brunt of the hits. This was rough on kickers Jordan Wettstein and David Schwerman, but the walk-ons know they must prove their toughness to earn a spot on the team. Kill has put a strong emphasis on improving special teams this spring. Last year the Gophers were the worst punting team in NCAA Division I-A football, averaging 34.4 yards a punt. The Gophers were also 11-of-17 in field goal attempts last year (64.7%), 89th in the nation.
Any thoughts of a running back competition this upcoming season could be put to rest as senior running back Duane Bennett looks to have the upper edge on the competition so far. His main competition, senior DeLeon Eskridge and freshman Donnell Kirkwood have struggled thus far in spring. I still see Eskridge getting quite a few carries but Bennett is a more complete running back whose ball-catching skills out of the backfield make him a threat in the passing game as well as the running game.
Troy Stoudermire, last year’s receiver-turned-corner has been the biggest playmaker on defense for the Gophers. Stoudermire has 4 interceptions through 4 practices, and the cornerback has been starting opposite Minnesota State-Mankato transfer Kyle Henderson.
Although Marqueis Gray admitted the switch to pads was different, he still wasn’t happy with the way he practiced Tuesday. “Confidence comes with more repetition,” Gray said after practice. He was questioned by Kill after throwing a pick when there was room for him to scramble for a first down. Gray’s pocket-passing and decision-making have been shaky so far through four spring practices. Kill’s offensive system relies heavily on the quarterback to make decisions, so Gray must prove to the coaches he can consistently make the right reads and play calls. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said the coaches are pleased with Gray’s progress but he still has a long way to go. Look for the Gophers to utilize Gray’s athletic ability this season by running a healthy portion of the offense out of the wildcat formation.
When Gray was asked about which receivers were doing well in practice he immediately named Marcus Jones. The multi-position speedster from Wake Forest, North Carolina played running back and cornerback last year in high school, scoring 19 touchdowns on the ground. Jones is a versatile athlete and a play-maker. Kill and his staff have Jones penciled in at wide receiver, where he could benefit largely from Gray’s mobility. While he is not a proto-typical wide receiver (5-8, 168 pounds), Jones has the size and speed to become an impact player in the slot if he is not redshirted.
Coach Kill plans to move practice outside Thursday and then to TCF Bank Stadium Saturday, weather permitting.