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Team Report - MINNESOTA

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INSIDE SLANT

The Gophers were ready to rumble when fall camp opened.

Several showing incidents took place on the first day of practice as players from the offensive and defensive lines went at it after action had been stopped.

The Gophers head into the season with an optimism that's grown in coach Jerry Kill's first three years on the job. The players are intent on proving they aren't going to get pushed around by anybody, opponents or one another.

Kill has been instilling that attitude since his first day on the job. He wants his team to show emotion, but admonished his players for crossing the line when it came to the extra activities in practice.

"The intensity is good," he said in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "You have to be able to play under control. Intensity, that's not an issue. But as (associate athletics director and former director of football operations) Dan O'Brien said, 'I'm glad I don't have to tell them to giddy up and go. You can always say, Whoa.' "

Minnesota finished 8-5 last season and recorded the program's first four-game winning streak in the Big Ten since 1973. The Gophers lost their last three games, including a defeat to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl, but they charge into this season with a confidence that was missing before Kill came to Minneapolis.

David Cobb, who became the first Minnesota running back to reach 1,000 yards last season since 2006, made that public at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago before fall camp began.

"The goal is 12 wins, but myself the goal is 1,500 yards," he said in what would be considered a bold statement by a Minnesota player.

Minnesota, which has improved in each of Kill's three seasons, finished 4-4 in the conference. The Gophers open the season against Eastern Illinois on Aug. 28 at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Gophers' success will rely on how quarterback Mitch Leidner plays. The redshirt sophomore was handed the job when Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers. Both saw significant time last season, but the job now belongs to Leidner.

"It feels good," Leidner said in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "Guys look up to me, and it feels a lot different from last year, that's for sure. I got a little bit of breathing room."

Nelson left the program soon after the bowl game. Tight end Maxx Williams says Leidner had his teammates' support immediately.

"Right when we found out Phil transferred, coach said that 'Hey, Mitch is our leader now,' " Williams said in the Pioneer Press. "From that day on, everyone has turned to Mitch. And Mitch has really stepped up and been like, 'You know what, guys? We have a chance to be great.' "

Kill, who missed time last season as he tries to manage his epilepsy, says he has lost about 12 pounds. He missed a game last season and then took a leave of absence. Kill coached several games from the press box before returning to the sidelines at halftime of the Texas Bowl.

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, the acting head coach for the final seven games, will go back to coaching from the press box.

NOTES, QUOTES

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: A visit to TCU on Sept. 13 highlights the non-conference schedule. The Horned Frogs slipped to 4-8 last season, but the trip to Fort Worth will still be a big test for the Gophers. Minnesota opens the season with home games against Eastern Illinois and Middle Tennessee so the Gophers should be undefeated going into their first road contest. San Jose State visits on Sept. 20 in a rematch of last season's game Minnesota won 43-24. The Big Ten season opens on Sept. 27 with a trip to Michigan. The Gophers played their second conference game at the Big House last season and were routed 42-13.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: The running game will again be the team's strength. David Cobb is coming off an outstanding season when he ran for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns. Berkley Edwards, who missed last season with a sprained ankle, played well in spring and fall camps. Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams add depth. Obviously, the offensive line must stay intact if the running game is going to have success. Tight end Maxx Williams will be the primary receiving target. Several key players, including end Theiren Cockran and cornerback Eric Murray, will return from last season's defense. Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who tore an ACL in the second game, has shown big-play ability.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Quarterback Mitch Leidner has the starter's job with no competition for the first time and his inexperience will show at some point. The receiving corps is a major question mark where a lack of experience will also be a major factor. Leidner and his receivers must build a chemistry quickly if the Gophers hope to keep opposing teams from focusing on the running game. The defense improved last season, but its three best players are gone. Tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen are trying to make it in the NFL and linebacker Aaron Hill has also moved on. They were among the team leaders in tackles and won't be easy to replace.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've always been the type of guy to carry a chip on my shoulder. I've had to wait my turn. I'm not cocky, but it's about being confident in your ability ... knowing what you can do." -- Running back David Cobb, in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, on his expectations for the 2014 season.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

HEAD COACH: Jerry Kill, fourth year at Minnesota, 17-21 record at Minnesota, 21st year as head coach, 144-94 record.

DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):

--TE Maxx Williams -- Plays as much like a wide receiver as he does a tight end. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, the redshirt sophomore has the size and speed to be formidable target. Williams can stretch the defense and get open downfield, but he can also out-leap defenders for passes. He caught 25 passes for a 16.5-yard average and five touchdowns last season.

--CB Eric Murray -- Is coming off a solid sophomore season in which he broke up 10 passes and was credited with 10 passes defended. Even though he's only 6-foot and 190 pounds, he plays receivers tightly and battles for the football. Murray recorded 52 tackles, good for seventh on the team.

--DE Theiren Cockran -- He stuffed the staff sheet as a sophomore. He was second on the team with 10 tackles for a loss of 43 yards had a team-high 7.5 sacks for 38 yards. Cockran also had three quarterback hits, forced four fumbles and recovered a fumble. At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, he should get the chance to play on Sunday.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Mitch Leidner -- The quarterback battle that dragged on through last season ended when Philip Nelson surprised everyone and transferred to Rutgers. That handed the job to Leidner, who made four starts and appeared in 10 games as a redshirt freshman. Given the fact Leidner is the only quarterback on the roster who has taken a snap in a college game, there was no controversy this time. Leidner threw for three touchdowns, had one interception and completed 55 percent of his passes last season. He played well at times, but how he handles starting against Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin will be the true test whether he'll cut it as a Big Ten quarterback.

BREAKOUT STAR: WR Donovahn Jones -- He came to campus as a quarterback, but was moved to wide receiver as a freshman. The transition took some time, but the coaches are optimistic Jones, who is 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, will contribute this season. He made 10 catches for 157 yards and had 16 carries for 73 yards last season.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DB Craig James -- The true freshman was a late addition to the recruiting class and could turn out to be a good find for the coaching staff. James chose the Gophers over Iowa, Indiana, Iowa State, Missouri and Syracuse. He got some time with the first-team defense in fall camp. "Craig James is a hell of a player," coach Jerry Kill said in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I can tell you that right now. He's different. He's a difference maker "

ROSTER REPORT:

--C Jon Christenson missed the final four games last season because of a broken leg, but is expected to be ready for the season opener on Aug. 28 against Eastern Illinois.

--CB Derrick Wells, who was sidelined by shoulder and ankle injuries last season, played well in fall camp. He had 74 tackles in 2012, but was limited to 17 last season.

--TE Duke Anyanwu is out for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee. He tore the ACL in his left knee before the 2012 season. Anyanwu is a redshirt freshman.

--QBs Chris Streveler and Conor Rhoda, both redshirt freshmen, are battling to back up Mitch Leidner. True freshman Dimonic Rhoden-McKinzy is also on the roster.

--RB Jeff Jones, one of the biggest recruits the Gophers have landed in several years, has qualified academically to be accepted into the university. He needed to take two summer school courses because his ACT score fell short of qualifying. Jones still has to wait for the NCAA Clearinghouse to decide if he'll be eligible to play this season.

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