Minnesota offense starts fast, then fades

Minnesota quarterback Mitch Liedner runs the ball during the spring game on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Alex Tuthill-Preus

Minnesota quarterback Mitch Liedner runs the ball during the spring game on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Jack Satzinger

After two consecutive Rodrick Williams runs to open up Saturday’s spring game at TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers faced third-and-three. 
 
That’s when Minnesota showed that its offense might have evolved after four years of smash-mouth football under head coach Jerry Kill. 
 
There wasn’t a handoff to a power running back trying to squeeze through the tackles for a first down. Mitch Leidner didn’t throw a four-yard pass to a tight end in the flat. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover didn’t call for the read option. 
 
Instead, Leidner dropped back and fired a 27-yard completion to wide receiver KJ Maye. A few plays later, Williams burst through the line for a 12-yard touchdown run — capping off an impressive opening drive. 
 
“That’s what you want every drive to look like,” Leidner said. “Rodrick came out hammering guys.” 
 
As good as the first series was for Minnesota’s offense, which ended up scoring 24 points Saturday, the Gophers’ young skill players experienced some growing pains as the day progressed. 
 
Jeff Jones, who is now taking most of his reps at receiver after being a highly touted running back recruit, dropped a catchable Chris Streveler pass before recording two receptions for 26 yards. Later in the game, Desmond Gant got behind the coverage and had a well-placed deep ball from Streveler slip through his hands. 
 
After the contest, Streveler said the young receivers were probably nervous to be playing in front of a larger crowd for the first time. An announced 10,100 fans were
in attendance — more than twice as many as last year’s spring game. 
 
“The first spring, everything is happening so fast. You’ve got some fans in the stands, so it adds some pressure for it,” Streveler said. “Drops and stuff like that are going to happen.” 
 
Leidner attempted only 11 passes Saturday, completing five of them, which left more snaps for Streveler. The likely second-string quarterback showed more poise in the pocket than in his first season under center and hit on some of his deeper throws. 
 
Streveler said he focused on coverage recognition over spring practice, reading the defense and making the right throw. 
 
“I just always feel like I can get better at everything,” said Streveler, who also rattled off a 64-yard touchdown run. “Overall, coverage recognition and just … getting more comfortable back there — that’s probably the biggest thing.” 
 
Minnesota’s passing game likely benefitted from not having to face the defense’s top defensive backs. Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Eric Murray, Damarius Travis and Antonio Johnson — Minnesota’s most established and experienced position group — didn’t play a single snap. 
 
But they still made themselves heard. 
 
After sophomore defensive back Craig James laid out wide receiver Louis Tuszynski with a big hit to break up a pass, James’ mentors started chirping from the sideline. 
 
Linebacker Cody Poock stood out on the defensive end all game, racking up a team-high 17 tackles. 
 
After Williams scored a touchdown on the first drive of the game and sat out for the remainder of the contest, Poock plugged up the holes backup running backs
Rodney Smith and Berkley Edwards tried to hit. Smith particularly showed promise, but he didn’t have much success running behind an offensive line filled with reserves. 
 
“Berkley and Rodney, we weren’t real clean up front, so they had some tough yards, but I like what they’ve done all spring,” Kill said. “I think all three of those guys are going to be important in what we do.”