Critical summer looms for Gophers

Minnesota running back Rodney Smith runs the ball during the spring game on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Alex Tuthill-Preus

Minnesota running back Rodney Smith runs the ball during the spring game on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Grant Donald

This year, Jerry Kill prepared his team for its annual spring game a little differently.
 
Instead of the traditional low-key walkthrough that players are accustomed to, Kill turned practice completely over to his team in preparation for his fifth spring game with the Gophers.
 
“It’s really fun to watch them,” Kill said. “To me, our job is to get those guys so knowledgeable that they could go coach if they wanted to.”
 
With the team heading into the coach-free summer months, its success rests solely in the players’ hands.
 
But Kill doesn’t seem worried.
 
“[Friday] went great. … I told them we just need to get out there and let them coach themselves,” Kill said. “I wanted to see what they wanted [the summer] to look like.”
 
But months away from Minnesota’s September season opener against TCU, Saturday’s spring game showed the Gophers still have plenty to work on.
 
Young receivers dropped multiple catchable passes, negating big plays.
 
“Ultimately, [this summer] is going to be about those receivers and getting those guys comfortable,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “Me and the rest of the quarterbacks need those guys to be on the same page as us at all times.”
 
This year, Leidner’s chemistry with his receivers looks more important than ever. The former Lakeville South star won’t have his number one target from a year ago — tight end Maxx Williams, who entered the NFL draft.
 
If the chemistry comes along, there is plenty of raw talent for Leidner to work with. Isaiah Gentry and Melvin Holland made a few plays Saturday, as did former four-star Washburn running back Jeff Jones.
 
Jones, who has been taking reps with the receivers during the spring, had two catches for 26 yards, but he also was responsible for one of the drops.
 
“I just talked to Jeff and told him that he needs to play outside at receiver some because he can run and go get a football,” Kill said. “He probably hadn’t played football in a year, so I’m very pleased with where he is at right now.”
 
With Jones taking most of his snaps at receiver, veteran Rodrick Williams, redshirt sophomore Berkley Edwards and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith are left to battle for the starting running back spot.
 
Williams only played during the first series Saturday, running six times for 33 yards and a touchdown. Both Edwards and Smith received 12 carries, with Edwards tallying 31 rushing yards, while Smith racked up 41 yards.
 
Heading into the summer, the Gophers seem comfortable with a running back by committee approach. However, the backs also realize the summer presents an opportunity for one of them to set himself apart from the competition.
 
“I am going to do anything that my team needs me to do,” Williams said Saturday. “I like the fact that we have depth and people that know what they’re doing, but I still want to be the one to go out there and win the game.”
 
Regardless, it seems like the players will have to improve on the base they created this spring. 
 
But while Minnesota’s inexperienced and talented skill players work, one thing is certain — age is just a number.
 
“I learned something from the Final Four and [Duke basketball coach Mike] Krzyzewski; you never call freshmen ‘freshmen,’” Kill said. “We are going to do that with our freshmen — if you are going to play, you have to get over being a freshman.”