Offensive play calling seeing new levels of success

Claeys is adjusting to the new role of being involved with offense.

Mike Hendrickson

A Gophers running back did something in Saturday’s game against No. 6 Iowa that hasn’t been done on the team since 2010.

Redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Leidner lined up under center in the fourth quarter and pitched the ball back to freshman running back Shannon Brooks, who ran to the right and threw to junior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky.

Wolitarsky ran it in for a 42-yard touchdown, the first touchdown pass thrown by a Minnesota running back since Duane Bennett had one against Northwestern in 2010.

“It didn’t look good in practice both times we ran it,” Wolitarsky said. “When we got the call in the game, I was a little hesitant, but it worked out perfectly. … There were some ducks [in practice] before.”

The touchdown put the Gophers within five points of Iowa and almost pulled off the upset as a result. Minnesota finished with 35 points in that game, the most Iowa had allowed all season.

The play call was a microcosm of what’s been clicking for the Gophers offense recently, as the team has come close to beating three of the Big Ten’s best teams.

Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said the play calling has changed a bit since former head coach Jerry Kill’s sudden retirement and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys stepping in as head coach, but Kill was always for trick plays like Brooks’ throw.

“[Kill] had a great knack for calling those at the right time, those types of plays,” Limegrover said. “With Tracy at the helm, I feel like I’m dealing directly with him as the head coach now. He has a great idea as a defensive coach of what we’re trying to accomplish. He says, ‘Yep, go ahead.’ He’s all for it.”

Claeys still isn’t handling the offensive play calling after his promotion, but he said he’s spending more time in offensive meetings.

Limegrover said there is an added dynamic with Claeys in the offensive meetings. Claeys, for his part, said he’s been able to add the perspective of how opposing defenses would approach the Gophers offense.

“I’ve been able to give them an idea how I think other teams will try to stop something,” Claeys said. “Eventually, you’re going to take away what you’re doing and what’s going to be your next move. Allow those guys to think about what the adjustment will be once they take something away.”

In addition to spending more time with the offense as head coach, Claeys said he is spending less time with the defense.

He said he’ll often alternate mornings and afternoons with the offense and defense, so he spends time with both groups each day.

 “I feel it’s my responsibility to have an idea of what’s going on both sides of the ball,” Claeys said. “The other guys are preparing the game plans.”

The Gophers offense is gaining confidence after having success in the past few weeks, even as Claeys starts to familiarize himself with that side of the ball. The former defensive coach still gave Leidner some advice during the team’s last game though.

“He comes up to me during the game and he’ll just say, ‘You’re doing a good job. Keep taking care of the football, and keep moving the chains,’” Leidner said. “He’s just positive with us, and he’s really done a good job with that.”