MINNEAPOLIS -- The mood has changed around the Minnesota practice facility, and a couple big reasons why are prominently displayed in the lobby.
Good morning from Minnesota. I'm told these bad boys made the rounds after last season. pic.twitter.com/nqP2CFqtyJ
— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) March 31, 2015
There are also plenty of smaller, lighter replicas in virtually every office, additional reminders of the trophy-game wins over Iowa and Michigan and validation of the progress the Gophers made in one of their more memorable seasons in recent memory.
But there is an Axe missing from that display, and Minnesota’s loss to Wisconsin on the final weekend of the regular season also kept it from winning the Big Ten West Division. So the Gophers are also well aware that their work isn’t done, and after spending a few days around the meeting rooms and the practice field, Jerry Kill’s program seems intent on adding to its collection in the fall.
Leading from the back: Settling the debate will have to wait until some games are actually played, but there’s no question Minnesota is returning one of the deepest, most talented secondaries in the Big Ten, led by dynamic cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun. That tandem combined for six interceptions last season, and with a defensive staff that is encouraged by Kill to experiment and dial up the aggression in spring ball, they are helping make life miserable for the offense. Versatile safety Damarius Travis also provides experience and versatility in the back, and along with perhaps senior Antonio Johnson and speedy Jalen Myrick at nickel, throwing on the Gophers isn’t going to be easy.
Hitting the spots: Throwing against the Minnesota secondary during practice can skew the numbers a bit, and statistically, Mitch Leidner probably wasn’t even close to the completion percentage of 65 or 70 that he wants to deliver in the fall. But across the board, Minnesota walked off the field Tuesday evening confident in the work the redshirt junior quarterback turned in, inconsistent as it may have seemed on the surface thanks to the defense he was facing. One sequence in particular put on full display what Leidner is capable of thanks to his strong arm and more accuracy than perhaps he gets credit for. He delivered a bullet on a slant over the middle, throwing into a small window on a corner route for a completion and then tossing a strike on a deep out to the sideline that only his target could have caught.
Missing Maxx: The biggest loss since the end of last season isn’t hard to determine, and considering how much the Gophers lean on their tight ends, there’s not much doubt that finding a way to replace Maxx Williams has been a regular topic of conversation for the coaching staff. Minnesota has options, including veteran Lincoln Plsek who caught 5 passes for 53 yards last year while making a name for himself as a physical blocker. Also, sophomore Duke Anyanwu is back after suffering a knee injury during fall camp. But the most intriguing candidate might be redshirt freshman Nate Wozniak, if for no other reason than his 6-foot-10 frame. Wozniak obviously provides a big target, and he made several catches during practice on Tuesday that showed some decent hands to go along with that size.