Football tour notebook: Fun takes from Minnesota practice
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota has its most talented team—and perhaps its best–since Tracy Claeys arrived in Dinkytown in 2011.
Yes, this roster still lacks top-end depth across the board. But there is plenty of speed and athleticism, along with size. It was on display on Saturday in a tough, hard-hitting scrimmage in TCF Bank Stadium.
Get my fun takes from Minneapolis below.
Most impressive player: LB Jack Lynn is a physical force who covers a lot of ground. He may end up being an All-Big Ten player. Also have to mention TE Nate Wozniak, who at 6-10, 275 pounds needs to be the first guy off the bus.
Top specimen: Junior defensive tackle Steven Richardson is the personification of a human fire hydrant at 6-0, 300 pounds. He’s a beast.
Impressive newcomer: You can go with either JC offensive lineman—tackle Garrison Wright or guard Vincent Calhoun. Each is a big, strong physical force.
On the rise: Keep an eye on 6-5 sophomore WR Rashad Still, a freaky athlete who can go get the ball.
Best drill: Late in the scrimmage, there was a spirited series of plays at the goal line that had the sidelines screaming. The hitting was hard. It took the offense four attempts to finally crack the goal line.
Nagging question: How will the Gophers generate a pass rush?
Under the radar: TE Brandon Lingen. The 6-5, 250-pound junior deserves to be getting more hype. He could be one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends.
Number: 8, all-conference players returning from last season, which is the second-most in the Big Ten.
New offensive coordinator Jay Johnson has simplified things on offense; schemes and ideas won’t change from week to week. To goal: Know what you do well, and do it well. That will help the offense play faster. This will be a physical, downhill attack built around play-action.
The staff likes the depth at defensive tackle, one of the strongest areas on the team. JC transfer Merrick Jackson has been a revelation inside. And sidekick Andrew Stelter looks primed for a nice season. Those two have pushed Steven Richardson to the second team with Scott Ekpe. The end spots? They are more of a concern. Minnesota needs a rush after netting just 22 sacks last year. Hendrick Ekpe is one end with Gaelin Elmore at the other spot. Long story short, the Gophers may have to manufacture a pass rush with some special personnel packages with as many as five LBs playing at once. It’s about creating chaos.
QB Mitch Leidner is looking good. He had his left foot repaired in the offseason and is moving well. And he has adapted to the new attack of coordinator Jay Johnson. Some feel Leidner could be a first- or second-round NFL pick and be developed into a quality pro. At 6-4, 220, he has the size. And lots of experience working in a conventional offense from under center.
The offensive line has become bigger, tougher, stronger and meaner under new line coach Bart Miller. The arrival of JC transfers Garrison Wright (left tackle) and Vincent Calhoun (right guard) has been huge. Each already benches over 400 pounds. Donnell Greene is another JC to watch. He arrived in August, so it may take time. Wright weighs 320; Calhoun 330; Greene 345. Jonah Pirsig is the senior anchor at right tackle who at 6-9, 325, is a monolith. Tyler Moore (305) is the center and Connor Mayes (330) is the left guard. Bottom line: This will be the Gophers’ best line since Tracy Claeys arrived in 2011, but depth is iffy.
The secondary has been one of the strongest areas on this defense in recent years. The unit is undergoing change in 2016, but I love the potential. The return of safety Damarius Travis is huge. He got hurt vs. TCU last year and missed the rest of the season, which impacted the defense. He may be the best player on the team. Jalen Myrick is a speedy corner. Ray Buford and KiAnte Hardin are battling at the other corner spot. Buford is a bigger corner, while Hardin is a speedster.
The running back situation is good with three solid options. Rodney Smith is the fastest back and a kid NFL scouts like. He’s running with the first team. Shannon Brooks is out with injury for 3-5 weeks but is another sturdy option. And JC transfer Kobe McCrary is 230-pound hammer who reminds some of David Cobb.
The linebackers will be a strong suit. Jack Lynn will be one of the Big Ten’s best. And I like Cody Poock, a tough and physical player. Jonathan Celestin is the other backer. He’s an athletic player who can play in space.
The Gophers will make liberal use of tight ends Brandon Lingen, who some are comparing to Maxx Williams. Yes, that’s a mouthful. Nate Wozniak is a mismatch waiting to happen at 6-10, 275 pounds. These guys are equally adept at blocking as they are at catching. Mitch Leidner will look for these guys in the red zone.
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