Dienhart: Three key areas for Gophers in spring ball

The good times are rolling at Minnesota, as Jerry Kill continues to put his stamp on the program. The proof: The Golden Gophers’ win total has improved each of Kill’s three seasons, going from three to six to eight victories last season. The guy has won at every stop in his career.

At one point in 2013, Minnesota was 8-2 and rode its first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 1973 en route to a second consecutive bowl under Kill’s stewardship.

Best of all, Kill appears to have his health issues under control after missing several 2013 games and working almost exclusively from the press box upon his return. When Kill was out, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys assumed command—and the program didn’t skip a beat, which is testament to the strong, stable staff that Kill has built.

Now, it’s time to take this program to the proverbial next level. That’s why there is a buzz around Kill’s fourth spring practice in Dinkytown.

[ MORE: Read all of Dienhart's spring football previews ]

Here’s a look at three key areas of emphasis this spring.

1. Wideouts. It’s no secret. This offense has struggled to stretch the field since Jerry Kill took over. To make the attack of astute coordinator Matt Limegrover fully functional, a more consistent vertical element is needed. And that must come from the wideouts for what was the No. 12 passing attack in the Big Ten (148.1 ypg). The Gophers had a Big Ten-low 12 touchdown passes. This must change. Donovahn Jones—who arrived on campus as a quarterback–and Drew Wolitarsky got their feet last year as true freshmen and turned some heads. Also, keep an eye on redshirt freshman Eric Carter. The presence of a strong rushing attack that ranked No. 5 in the Big Ten (195.2 ypg) and returns largely intact should create room for the passing game. At least that’s the thought.

2. Front seven. This staff continues to inject more speed and athletic ability into the roster. That’s good, because it will be needed on the defensive line and at linebacker for an improving defense that ranked No. 6 in the Big Ten (373.2 ypg). Damien Wilson is a returning anchor at middle linebacker. But who will flank him with Aaron Hill and James Manuel gone? The staff likes De’Vondre Campbell, a swift athlete, on the weak side. JC transfer Cody Poock will get a look on the strong side. De’Niro Laster and Ray Dixon also are in the mix. Jack Lynn could make some noise inside behind Wilson. Up front, massive Ra’Shede Hageman is gone at tackle, along with Roland Johnson. Coaches will build around Cameron Botticelli and Scott Ekpe. Playmakers are needed up front on the interior for a rushing defense that was just No. 8 in the Big Ten in 2013 (158.2 ypg).

3. Quarterback. With Philip Nelson bolting for Rutgers, this is Mitch Leidner’s team. He’s a big athlete who is equally adept at making plays with his feet as he is with his arm. But who will be the backup? Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler is built for this offense, but he’s coming off hand surgery. True freshman Dimonic Roden-McKinzy is on campus and competing. Staffers love his athletic ability.

Key losses: CB Jeremy Baltazar; WR Derek Engel; DT Ra’Shede Hageman; LB Aaron Hill; DT Roland Johnson; LB James Manuel; QB Philip Nelson; OT Ed Olson; CB Martez Shabazz; CB/S Brock Vereen

Spring practice starts: March 4

Spring game: April 12

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