Big Ten Spring Football Review: Minnesota

There was no quarterback derby at Minnesota this spring, but improving the passing game was a key focus for the Golden Gophers, who also lost a standout defensive tackle.

Quick 2013 review:

Minnesota went 4-0 in nonconference play but dropped its first two Big Ten games (to Iowa and Michigan, respectively). The Golden Gophers then won four in a row, including a home upset of Nebraska, before dropping decisions to No. 17 Wisconsin and No. 11 Michigan State to close out the regular season. They narrowly lost the Texas Bowl 21-17 to Syracuse, but the Gophers' four conference wins were still the most of the post-Glen Mason era (2007-present).

Minnesota's winning formula was very old school: run the ball and play good defense. The Gophers averaged 195.2 rushing yards per game to finish 37th in the nation but finished 105th overall and 11th in the Big Ten in total offense. They were also 11th in scoring (25.7 points per game) and finished last in the league in passing yards and completion percentage, but they led the conference in yards per completion at 14.1. Defensively, the Gophers were 43rd overall and sixth in the Big Ten in total yards allowed while proving harder to throw against (35th nationally) than run (54th). In the red zone, the Gophers were good both with (19th) and without (15th) the ball, and they were solid on third down offensively and defensively, ranking in the 40s nationally in both.

As far as Football Outsiders rankings, the Gophers checked in with a top 50 defense and the No. 73 offense overall. Most notably, the defense was 53rd on passing downs and 47th in defensive passing S&P+, a measure of how well they stopped both explosive passes and slowed efficiency of opponents.

Spring game recap:

An estimated 5,000 fans traveled to TCF Bank Stadium to see the Gopher offense scrimmage against the team's defense. While returning starting running back David Cobb ran for 29 yards on seven carries, fellow veteran Donnell Kirkwood picked up 39 yards on 10 totes. Youngster Berkley Edwards topped them with 46 yards and a touchdown while junior Rodrick Williams was the leading rusher on the day with 52 yards on nine carries. Four quarterbacks combined to complete 17 of 27 passes for 168 yards, including a 7-for-15 day by sophomore Mitch Leidner. Three youngsters led the defense effort as Chris Wipson, De'Niro Laster and Nick Rallis had seven tackles apiece and Jalen Myrick had an interception.

Issues addressed:

Head coach Jerry Kill wants to see more from the passing game this year, but he was happy to brag about the depth his team continued to develop at tailback with the return of 1,200-yard rusher Cobb as well as Williams and Kirkwood. Edwards, a redshirt freshman whose older brother is Braylon Edwards, could add a speed element to the backfield as well.

As for the throw game, Leidner returns as the presumed starter after sharing the quarterback spot last season with Philip Nelson, who transferred to Rutgers in the offseason.

While rushing for 407 yards and at times looking like a single-wing halfback last season, Leidner completed only 43 of 78 passes (55.1 percent) for 619 yards in 10 games last season with three TDs and an interception.

"It's like anything else, the more you do it, the more concentration you put on something the better you get, so we've spent a lot of time on that and gotten better," Kill said.

"Mitch has done a great job. I think from time he got back from bowl game he's taken complete control of team on both sides of the football. He's worked his tale off in the offseason and became like a coach. He's worked with the receivers and really everybody since we can't be there and he's done a great job. That's helped this group along in the spring, and he's executed very well.

"We've gotten better on the offensive side of the ball so that's really encouraging."

Leidner acknowledged taking a leadership role during the winter and said he feels he has gained respect from the locker room.

For his part, he has worked to build a greater rapport with the team's top two returning pass catchers -- tight end Maxx Williams (25 catches for 417 yards) and wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky (15 for 259).

"Drew is a guy who's really football savvy," Leidner said. "He really understands it. He's just stepping up and getting that much better this spring.

"Maxx Williams is just a guy you can throw the ball to and he's going to go and get it. I've known Maxx for a long time and we have a good relationship. He'll catch everything. It's really exciting to have a guy on your team like that."

Defensively, the biggest hole to fill is at tackle following the departure of Ra'shede Hageman, who figures to hear his name called early in an early round of the upcoming NFL draft.

The line was hit by injuries this spring, but Kill identified Robert Ndondo-Lay among the standouts up front.

"He's a young man who's really a unique story, and that's what you love about college football," Kill said after Ndondo-Lay notched three tackles and a sack in the spring game. "He comes in here, he walks on, he gets in the weight room. He's 265 pounds and had a great spring. He wants to play. He works his tail end off. I like that. I like the way he did some things out there today. I like that kid a lot."

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