Lessons learned from spring practice: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Spring camp is over and the annual scrimmages are in the books. So, as part of an ongoing series this week, we're taking a look back at what we've learned so far this offseason.

Up next: Minnesota Golden Gophers.

1. This stable of running backs is only getting stronger.

Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith combined for 1,379 rushing yards and nine touchdowns last season. So it's worth reminding that they're only sophomores. (Brooks a true sophomore, Smith a redshirt sophomore.)

As a result, it should be no surprise that both showed a lot of growth this spring. Coach Tracy Claeys had the two sometimes spend a half-hour at practice just performing inside-run drills. And the two never seemed to be satisfied. Smith gave himself a B-minus for last season's performance, and Brooks gave himself a C. "They come to work every day," Claeys said. "They really do."

But it's not just Brooks and Smith who are impressing. Two redshirt freshmen also showed a lot of promise. Jonathan Femi-Cole turned in a solid spring, and Claeys saidJames Johannesson was the spring's most improved player on offense. It always bodes well for the future when the top four backs are all praised -- and they're all underclassmen.

2. The new coordinators aren't afraid of changing it up.

Granted, they have been a bit secretive about specific changes -- Claeys said he'd like Minnesota to catch its opponents off-guard -- but there already have been quite a few adjustments. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson has moved to a zone-blocking scheme, while defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel has experimented with different schemes in third-down situations.

The running backs already seem to have bought into Johnson's tweaks. Brooks told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "I feel like it fits this offense here more than just power all the time." Because of Johnson's past at Louisiana-Lafayette, Minnesota is expected to use some pistol formations.

As for Sawvel, who's in his sixth year at Minnesota but first as coordinator, he emphasized during the spring just how much the Gophers need to improve on third-down defense. Last season, Minnesota ranked No. 88 nationally in opponent third-down percentage (41.6 percent). The only B1G teams that fared worse? Indiana, Purdue and Rutgers. Sawvel might choose to run a 3-4, add different blitz packages and/or just put some faster personnel in on third-and-longs. It's not quite clear just what he'll do. But we did learn these two coordinators aren't sticking to the stats quo.

3. Minnesota is getting a lot of help in the trenches from its junior-college enrollees. Give a lot of credit to the Gophers here because, on paper, none of their three junior-college linemen was rated above three stars. Still, they were expected to come in and make an immediate impact. And they've done that: Merrick Jackson at defensive tackle, Vincent Calhoun at right guard and Garrison Wright at left tackle.

Calhoun was our spring breakout player after the right side of the line experienced a lot of success in the spring game. And Wright also earned a start in the scrimmage.

"I've been very pleased," offensive line coach Bart Miller said about the pair. "Not only with their retention, but that they've come in and competed right away. They've added a physical element; they've got some ability."

Jackson is no different. Defensive tackle has more depth, so Jackson might not start. But he'll still contribute behind Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe. Claeys complimented his offseason work even before spring practice started. And, during the spring game, Jackson turned in a scrimmage-high 2.5 tackles for loss.

All in all, those three juco players bring a lot more size and physicality to the Gophers. Of Minnesota's four biggest players, in terms of weight, three of them are the jucos.