Gophers begin spring practice slate

Minnesota will need to find replacements for David Cobb and Maxx Williams.

Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner practices in the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex on Tuesday afternoon during the Gophers' first spring practice.

Liam James Doyle

Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner practices in the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex on Tuesday afternoon during the Gophers' first spring practice.

Jack Satzinger

When Mitch Leidner began spring practice for the Gophers last year, he had only passed for 619 yards in limited reps.

But now — after a completed redshirt sophomore season in which he was Minnesota’s emotional leader and played in nearly every game — he seemed much more poised at this year’s spring practice start on Tuesday.

“It feels a lot different. I feel a lot more comfortable,” Leidner said. “By now, I feel really confident in our offense.”

The Gophers quarterback didn’t put up stellar numbers last year, passing for 1,798 yards in Minnesota’s run-oriented offense.

But it sounds like a new graduate assistant could help.

Former Gophers quarterback Adam Weber recently joined Minnesota as an offensive graduate assistant. Weber, the program’s all-time passing leader at 10,917 yards, is already making an impact even in early days of the job.

When asked which players stood out in Tuesday’s first spring practice, head coach Jerry Kill paused and then said Weber.

“[Weber] allows [quarterbacks coach] Jimmy [Zebrowski] to move around a little bit more, so I think that helps us a lot,” Kill said.

While the Gophers offense will need to adjust after losing running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, there’s plenty of young talent on the offensive side of the ball, which could potentially help Leidner make plays.

Freshmen receivers Melvin Holland and Isaiah Gentry are both listed above 6 feet, 3 inches and are very athletic.

“We’ve got some big guys on the outside — something that we haven’t had before,” Leidner said. “It’s a good group that likes to work.”

Kill said as KJ Maye heads into his senior season, he’s embraced a leadership role in the receivers group. Maye, who tallied 298 receiving yards last season, is the Gophers’ leading returning receiver.

Williams led Minnesota in receiving last year and will likely be impossible to replace.

But Kill seemed excited on Tuesday to see what Duke Anyanwu can do at the tight end position now that he’s healthy.

The Blaine, Minn., native was slated to contribute last season, but his year ended in fall camp because of a knee injury. Anyanwu was at full strength in practice on Tuesday.

“It’s amazing he’s back this quick,” Kill said.

While Minnesota has a lot of pass-catchers with potential, the team has steadily climbed under Kill with a strong running game. There should be a spirited battle for the starting running back spot vacated by Cobb in the upcoming season, considering the Gophers have a lot of talent returning.

Rodrick Williams has a ton of experience and is in better shape after winter workouts. And the coaching staff seems high on Rodney Smith, who redshirted last year, while Jeff Jones — who also didn’t play last season — is arguably the most high-profile recruit Kill has nabbed while with the Gophers.

“They’re a good group, and we’ve got a good one to replace in David Cobb,” Kill said. “I mean, they’ve got to keep limiting the mental mistakes and keep learning players as well.”

Minnesota is still months from opening the regular season against a very talented TCU team in early September.

But as the Gophers took the field on Tuesday, that showdown seemed closer in view.

“I think guys are really excited and thinking about that in the back of their mind right now,” defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun said.