Signs of improvement on display at annual spring game

The Gophers split into two teams for an intrasquad scrimmage — a 3-0 affair that lacked offense.

Minnesota defensive backs Grayson Levine and Steven Montgomery and wide receiver A.J. Barker collide for the ball Saturday during the annual Gophers spring game at TCF Bank Stadium.

Marisa Wojcik

Minnesota defensive backs Grayson Levine and Steven Montgomery and wide receiver A.J. Barker collide for the ball Saturday during the annual Gophers spring game at TCF Bank Stadium.

Dane Mizutani

Neither squad saw offensive success in the Gophers’ annual spring game Saturday, but the entire arrangement was altered from years past.

On Saturday — for the first time in Jerry Kill’s tenure — Minnesota split up its roster, kept score and had a clear winner in the end.

However, Kill said the scrimmage’s final score was almost irrelevant.

“We got to play everybody, and we got a chance to see everyone on the field, and at the end of the day … we got out of it healthy,” Kill said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

It was a chance for Minnesota to show off its growth over the past month of spring practices, but Chris Hawthorne’s 21-yard field goal proved to be the difference and the maroon squad triumphed 3-0 over its gold counterparts.

Minnesota, which struggled to a 3-9 record last season, didn’t look extremely sharp throughout the game, but the intensity was there.

“It felt like a real game — the intensity was real hype,” junior linebacker James Manuel said. “We came in early to the locker room so it felt like a game setting even before the game started.”

Manuel, who made the switch from safety to linebacker at the start of the spring, recorded five tackles and one sack and forced a fumble Saturday.

“We got out of it with 3 points in total so that’s good for both defenses,” Manuel added. 

The game featured a mixture of both defenses looking sharp and both offenses looking stagnant. But amid the occasional offensive ineptitude, quarterback MarQueis Gray looked efficient for the maroon team.

Gray was 4-for-8 for 62 yards in the game, including a 35-yard strike down the field to Brandon Green for the longest play from scrimmage of the day.

Gray looked more poised in the pocket than he did much of last year. A season ago, his preference seemed to be taking off and running. Even with his improved composure, he did not lead his team to a score.

But his backup, Max Shortell, took over the maroon team’s offense midway through the game.

Shortell, while not as efficient as Gray, impressed with 68 yards passing and an extra 30 yards rushing. He also led his team down the field for the only score for either team.

It was clear he had acquired a sense of comfort in the offense from last season to now.

“It’s a whole new level now how I understand [the offense],” Shortell said. “I’m able to talk to different kids about routes and different things they can do because we understand it more now.”

On the opposite sideline, freshmen quarterback duo Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner led the gold team’s offense. Neither quarterback completed a pass Saturday (they were a combined 0-for-8), but Kill said he was still impressed with the body of work from the spring sessions.

Kill also said he was impressed with how the secondary looked while playing at game speed Saturday.

“We got some guys in the secondary that can run, and we’re a little bigger in the secondary, which we needed to continue to do,” Kill said.

Cedric Thompson, who didn’t see the field much last season, led all players with eight tackles.

Minnesota proved Saturday that there is room for growth into the summer, but the true test won’t come until Aug. 30 when it opens the 2012-13 season against UNLV.