Thursday, August 9, 2012
Gophers offense hopes to fatten up in 2012
By Adam Rittenberg
In late June, a group of Minnesota offensive linemen passed Matt Limegrover in the hallway of Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex and did double-takes.
"Coach?" they asked Limegrover, the Gophers' offensive coordinator and line coach.
"Yeah," he replied. "It's me."
Limegrover started losing weight in January and had dropped 40-50 pounds by the time spring ball ended. But the players didn't notice a change until they went several weeks without seeing him.
"They got a big kick out of that," he said.
As of Thursday morning, Limegrover had shed nearly 120 pounds from his frame -- "It's like 119.8," he reported -- and often draws double-takes when spotted on campus.
Part of his motivation for the weight loss came from how he felt during the 2011 season.
"I felt so run down didn't feel like I was at my best, and felt like that was unfair to the kids I was coaching and the team in general," he said. "I feel like a million bucks out there now, 10 times better than I did at any point the last couple years.
"Now I'm not saying it'll help us win some games, but it can't hurt."
While Limegrover has slimmed down considerably, his offense could be fattening up this fall.
Minnesota struggled offensively in 2011, the first season of the Jerry Kill era, finishing last in the Big Ten in both scoring (18.4 ppg) and total offense (310.3 ypg), and 11th in passing offense (150.3 ypg). The Gophers failed to score 30 or more points in a game and had 17 points or fewer in half of their contests.
A big reason for the futility: no identity.
The Golden Gophers expect Brandon "Mr. Dependable" Green to be a leader in the receiving corps.
"We just weren't sure of who we were as an offense," Limegrover said. "That hurt us because we tried too hard to do all the things we had been doing at Northern Illinois, and this was a different group. It's Year 1 at Minnesota, not Year 4 at Northern Illinois."
Year 2 at Minnesota promises to bring greater production, and Limegrover is encouraged by what he's seen in the first few practices of fall camp. The best signs come from the running backs, a mostly anonymous group in 2011 that loses Duane Bennett (639 rush yards).
Junior college transfer James Gillum, who turned heads this spring, continues to display excellent vision and the power to run between the tackles. Sophomore Devon Wright and freshman K.J. Maye provide speed threats on the edge, while Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb both are healthy and ready to contribute. All the backs have shown a greater grasp of the scheme and the versatility to help in multiple areas.
"Those kids have lifted the energy level of the offense," Limegrover said. "They've given us a spark. They're hitting holes and they're doing things on the perimeter. They're picking up their assignments in the pass game. It's really been a bright spot for us because that's an area I know a lot of people have questions."
The same holds true for the wide receivers. Minnesota loses Da'Jon McKnight, who accounted for 51 of the team's 134 receptions in 2011. No returning player had more than 15 catches a year ago.
Brandon Green, a fifth-year senior who Limegrover calls "Mr. Dependable," leads the group and likely will be quarterback MarQueis Gray's top target. Devin Crawford-Tufts has filled out a bit and "can still run like a deer," Limegrover said. Speedster Marcus Jones is back from a knee injury, and incoming freshmen Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison are already showing the ability to contribute right away. Tight end John Rabe should have a much bigger role in the passing game after recording two touchdown catches last fall.
"We're looking more like a Big Ten receiving crew and Big Ten running backs," Limegrover said. "We've worked to get our tight end position more involved. And especially in the O-line, we're a year bigger and more physical, even though we're still young."
About the only Gophers offensive player who doesn't spark skepticism is senior quarterback MarQueis Gray. He carried the unit for much of the 2011 season, rushing for 966 yards on a team-high 199 carries, and making strides as a passer.
Limegrover is thrilled with Gray's offseason, calling him a "papa bear" for Minnesota's younger players. But Limegrover knows the Gophers must give their signal-caller more help.
"It isn't like basketball where LeBron James, you just clear a side of the floor and let him do his thing," Limegrover said. "We've got to be able to have great support around him. The worst thing we could do for our offense and for this program and for MarQueis Gray is to sit back and go, 'Well, we're going to put it all on his shoulders and we’ll only go as far as he'll take us.' That would be lazy and shortsighted. Every day, we get a little bit closer to everybody feeling good about those other spots.
"That's by far our biggest goal, to get to where we don't have just one bullet in our gun."