Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill had reason to be pleased with the Gophers’ annual spring game Saturday.
The weather held up. More than 10,000 fans were announced in attendance. And the Gophers’ offense — anemic for much of Kill’s first two seasons at Minnesota — scored a combined five touchdowns.
On the warmest day in Minneapolis since Oct. 3, 2012, the maroon team beat the white team 24-17 at the Gophers’ annual spring game at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We’ve had a great spring,” Kill said. “I still think we have to mentally and physically develop some toughness, and I think we’re doing that as we work.”
The split-squad scrimmage felt like a game in some respects — a full corps of referees called penalties, and the marching band played the Minnesota Rouser after scoring plays — but had a more relaxed feel. Players occasionally switched teams, and defensive players were not allowed to hit the quarterbacks.
Kill watched from the backfield for most of the afternoon as the two squads rattled off 26 first downs. Quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner led the way with a combined 291 yards passing.
Nelson went 2-5 as a freshman starter last season and had several ups and downs. He threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns in his second start — a 44-28 win over Purdue — but threw only three more touchdowns in his last five games.
He’s shown improvement throughout spring practice and said he feels more comfortable than ever with his receivers.
Nelson completed his first 10 passes Saturday and finished 13-for-17 with 179 yards and one touchdown, helping the maroon team take a 14-3 halftime lead.
The redshirt freshman Leidner was nearly as good, completing 10 of 18 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns while leading the white team on a second-half comeback. His 10-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman receiver Jamel Harbison gave the team a 17-14 lead near the end of the third quarter.
But Nelson responded by leading the maroon team on a six-play, 65-yard drive to start the fourth quarter, capped by a five-yard touchdown pass to senior Derrick Engel.
Leidner briefly quarterbacked the maroon team in the fourth quarter, but the victory belonged to Nelson.
The two quarterbacks are the same age (19), but Leidner redshirted last season and quarterbacked the scout team, while Nelson became the Gophers’ starting quarterback in October.
“We’ve basically gone through this whole college experience together,” Nelson said. “We really push each other, and it really helps us get better.”
Nelson and Leidner put up their gaudy numbers Saturday against a defense that ranked 12th nationally in passing defense last season.
But the defense played without three key players — defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive backs Brock Vereen and Derrick Wells, all who were starters last season. Kill said the trio — along with about 11 other players — was held out of the game for precautionary reasons.
Even so, both defenses held up and forced one turnover each.
Middle linebacker Damien Wilson, a junior college transfer, led the white team with six tackles and recovered a fumble late in the third quarter.
Wilson has been competing with redshirt freshman Jack Lynn for the starting middle linebacker spot. Lynn practiced with the first team for most of the spring and played with it Saturday, recording six tackles.
Senior outside linebacker James Manuel led all defensive players with seven tackles.
“I thought we had good play overall on both sides of the ball,” Kill said. “This is the first time I feel like we’re starting to build a little bit of depth on our team.”