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Spring wrap-up: Minnesota Gophers

4/13/2015

Another spring camp around the Big Ten has come to a close, with Minnesota wrapping up its work with an offense-defense scrimmage on a sunny Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium. Before moving on to the offseason, it's time to look back at the developments, the lessons and the standouts from March and April as the Gophers gear up for another run at the West Division title.

What we learned

The no-huddle was no spring fling: The faster tempo and tinkering with a no-huddle attack may have started as an experiment, but considering all the time both the staff and players invested in learning, perhaps it should come as no surprise the Gophers are serious about incorporating it into the system in the fall. Certainly Minnesota won't be abandoning its old-school, power-rushing game under coach Jerry Kill any time soon, but it is clearly expanding the playbook moving forward with more screens and quick throws to the perimeter along with occasionally skipping a huddle to see if it can catch defenders on their heels more often.

Passing on Minnesota is going to be tough: There is no catchy nickname for the unit yet, but the defensive backs may soon have earned the right to trademark one. Cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun are set to lead what might be the most talented secondary in the Big Ten this fall, and while a "Legion of Boom"-style moniker might get them more attention nationally, both for now seemed content to let their play do the talking for them. It spoke volumes last season as the Gophers took a step forward defensively, but they're only getting better with experience and more depth in the back end.

Backfield is still loaded: Replacing a workhorse such as David Cobb would have seemed like a daunting task heading into spring camp, but there was obviously a reason Kill was so unconcerned about filling the void in yardage and carries left by his graduation. The Gophers have a full stable on hand to move on without him, and it also doesn't appear like they'll have to rely so heavily on one featured tailback this fall. Rodrick Williams Jr. shined in the spring game on Saturday, showing off some bruising, relentless rushing that likely has him safely at the top of the depth chart. But Rodney Smith and Berkley Edwards have both made cases that they can contribute as well, and even if Kill had previously had some concerns about his backfield, they should be long gone by now.

Spring stars

WR/RB Jeff Jones: The best position for the talented freshman may still be unclear, but Minnesota found out quickly that Jones needs to be on the field in some capacity no matter what. With something of a logjam at running back and with Jones possessing a versatile set of skills, the Gophers tried him out at wide receiver during the latter stages of camp and saw more flashes of the type of explosive ability he could bring to an offense that definitely could use it. At times, Jones even looked like an H-back from a spread offense, and the Gophers appear more than willing to throw him screens from the slot, hand him the football on jet sweeps or put him in motion into the backfield and let him run from there. As Minnesota evolves on offense, it could be Jones who leads the charge.

Linebackers: Picking just one might be a bit unfair for the Gophers, which is a tribute to the depth they have finally built at the second level and was a significant part of the optimism surrounding the defense collectively in the spring. Minnesota must replace their leading tackler and signal-caller at middle linebacker with Damien Wilson gone, but it appears to have no shortage of options for filling out the rotation with a handful of new faces emerging. Cody Poock closed out the spring with 17 tackles in the final exhibition, Jonathan Celestin added 12 and early enrollee Julian Huff chipped in eight as the linebackers stole the show in the final workout.

K Ryan Santoso: The Gophers caught a glimpse of how valuable Santoso and his huge leg could be as a freshman when he drilled a long-range, game-winning kick last season. But he might only be scratching the surface of his talent, and at a program that values special teams as much as Minnesota, Santoso's spring won't go unnoticed. He definitely finished it with a bang, hitting a 56-yard attempt on Saturday that would qualify as a career long if it had been in a meaningful game. And if games come down to the wire in the fall, having Santoso around is surely going to come in handy for the Gophers.