Dienhart: Here's what I learned at Minnesota football practice
MINNEAPOLIS — Tracy Claeys has his chance to make an impact in his debut season. He has a nice collection of talent to work with. Most notable is the presence of senior QB Mitch Leidner, who some think is an NFL signal-caller. Claeys also has altered his staff, looking to amp up what has been a middling offense. There is a new offensive coordinator in Jay Johnson and a new line coach in Bart Miller. Will the alterations pay off?
Here is what I learned at a Golden Gophers’ scrimmage on Saturday.
1. The offensive line looks good. This unit needed to make a move for the offense to improve. New line coach Bart Miller has done a nice job. Tracy Claeys wants big linemen who are maulers in hopes of improving a rushing attack that needs punch. This unit is showing some toughness, some nastiness. That’s a good thing. In 2015, Minnesota’s offense was in the bottom 20 percent in the nation — in total yards (359 per game), rushing (144) and scoring (22.5 points). They didn’t crack the top 100 in any of those categories. Tyler Moore is at center; Jonah Pirsig is the right tackle; Vincent Calhoun at right guard; Connor Mayes at left guard; Garrison Wright is left tackle. Calhoun and Wright are JCs who have added a lot of strength, toughness and attitude.
2. This is a nice collection of running backs. But the unit received a blow when Shannon Brooks was lost for three-to-five weeks with a fractured foot. He led the team in rushing last season as a freshman, but the injury will cause him to miss the non-conference. With Brooks out, Rodney Smith, who ran for 609 yards last season, is expected to start at tailback. JC Kobe McCrary is another option. I like him, as McCrary is a big back who reminds some of David Cobb.
3. Mitch Leidner seems a fit for the new offense of coordinator Jay Johnson. Leidner is moving well after having surgery on a left foot that had nagged him each of the last two seasons. Now healthy, Leidner looks confident directing this attack. He could be poised for a big senior season as one of the nation’s most underrated signal-callers.
4. The receiving corps needs to step up. The unit had focused on improving its hands in camp. Rashad Still, Drew Wolitarsky, Eric Carter, Isaiah Gentry and Hunter Register are in the mix. Who will be the No. 1 option? Wolitarsky may be the man, but keep an eye on the 6-5 Still. He’s a good athlete. Tight end Brandon Lingen has been slowed by a shoulder injury but played on Saturday. He looks good and may end up being one of the Big Ten’s best. NFL scouts love him.
5. The secondary is being reworked but has potential. Getting back safety Damarius Travis is huge. He got hurt vs. TCU last season and missed the rest of the season. It impacted the defense. He’s a special player who directs traffic and leads. Jalen Myrick is a swift corner, with Ray Buford and KiAnte Hardin battling at the other spot. This could end up being a great group. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel does a great job.
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