Dienhart: 5 things I learned at Minnesota fall practice

Dienhart: 5 things I learned at Minnesota fall practice

MINNEAPOLIS — These are exciting times in Dinkytown for Minnesota with P.J. Fleck taking over. The possibilities seem endless for Fleck, who made Western Michigan a winner with his “Row the Boat” rally cry. What can he do at a Big Ten school?

[ MORE: Fun takes from Minnesota practice | Facebook Live ]

Here are five things I learned at Golden Gophers practice on Thursday.

1. The quarterback job remains a work in progress. I’m not sure what to make of it. Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft remain in a battle to replace Mitch Leidner. Each is a nice athlete and able to extend the play, with Croft having a slight edge. Each needs to become a better passer. Being decisive and avoiding turnovers are vital to P.J. Fleck. If I was forced to make a decision today, I think I would go with Croft. He is a bit more accurate and he can extend plays behind a line that may spring some leaks. Fans will notice that this offense goes at a quicker pace the recent Minnesota attacks. Either way, whoever wins the job, both guys will see action.

2. There is potential at wideout. No returning receiver had more than 18 catches in 2016, and only one of those grabs was for a touchdown. Sophomore Tyler Johnson is enjoying a good camp and looked good on this day. He could a real player. Rashad Still and Eric Carter are steady veterans. I really like the 6-5 Still, who is a rangy target. Keep an eye on true freshmen Demetrius Douglas, the son of former Gopher wideout Omar. He is a special talent who figures to play a big role this season. I also like the tight ends. At 6-10, TE Nate Wozniak is a mismatch waiting to happen. And Brandon Lingen is another reliable option.

3. I like the d-line. DT Steve Richardson is one of the Big Ten’s best. Pro Football Focus has the powerful Richardson ranked second in the nation among interior d-linemen. Richardson’s 41 QB pressures in 2016 are the most among returning Big Ten defensive tackles, according to PFF. With his low center of gravity, he may be one of the most unblockable players in the conference. Andrew Stelter and Merrick Jackson are other stout tackles. Carter Coughlin and Winston DeLattiboudere are ends with a burst. This front often will operate out of a 3-4 alignment on many occasions with Carter Coughlin moving down from LB to DE.

4. The offensive line was thin in the spring, but I like its potential now. There is power and size in tackles Donnell Greene and Garrison Wright, who has been dinged. Greene is the top blocker on the unit, but he is battling back from being a dinged a bit. Guard Vincent Calhoun is a load on the interior. Jared Weyler is the center with Conner Olson at guard. Nick Connelly is at the other tackle spot. True freshman offensive tackle Blaise Andries is impressive and will play. Watch him. O-line coach Ed Warinner told me after practice he has seven or eight linemen he would be comfortable playing.

5. The running back spot is loaded. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks need to be stars. They could be one of the best 1-2 punches in the Big Ten. Keep an eye Kobe McCrary. At 240, he is a load and will be a weapon in short yardage. These guys need to excel to take pressure off the new quarterback.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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