2008 Big Ten Football Season Preview: Minnesota
Aug. 15, 2008
Minnesota enters the second year of the Tim Brewster era focused on the future and not the past. Forgotten is the 2007 season where the Golden Gophers struggled to a 1-11 record and were winless in eight Big Ten contests. The attention has now been turned to the quality of youngsters Brewster has brought to this program in his first recruiting class. Long a proponent of playing kids who have the desire to play, Brewster has lured some of the nation's top prospects to Minneapolis to contribute immediately to a Golden Gopher program that will be playing its 26th and final season in the HHH Metrodome.
Fifteen freshmen saw action last season, including 10 true newcomers. Expect that trend to continue as 31 members of the Class of 2008 are on campus, with 11 of those ranked in the top 50 nationally at their position or overall and 21 rated in the top 100. Some of the respected national recruiting services ranked Brewster's first class as high as 16th in the country and third in the Big Ten.
OFFENSE: Minnesota returns the majority of its offensive production from a year ago, including quarterback and leading rusher Adam Weber. The sophomore signal caller was thrown into the fire in his first year and responded with big numbers. He averaged 292.7 total yards per game and threw for 2,895 yards on 258-of-448 passing. He recorded 24 touchdowns, but he also threw for 19 interceptions -- a stat that should drastically decrease this year with that first season under his belt. Weber also totaled 617 rushing yards on the season for five touchdowns. Sophomore Duane Bennett returns to the backfield and will take over the majority of the carries this year following the graduation of Amir Pinnix. Junior Jay Thomas will bring speed to the lineup as Bennett's backup, but Thomas has also been plagued with a pair of ACL surgeries throughout his career. Also gone is big-play receiver Ernie Wheelwright (11.7 ypc/9 TD), but Weber's primary target returns in junior wideout Eric Decker. He totaled 909 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season and boasted averages of 13.6 and 75.8 yards per catch and game, respectively. Freshman wideout Brandon Green and sophomore Ralph Spry will be counted on to take some of the pressure of Decker in the passing game. Also look for senior tight end Jack Simmons to be an option for Weber as well. Minnesota will need to quickly address its issues on the line. Gone is center Tony Brinkhaus and left tackle Steve Shidell, both of whom were 2007 All-Big Ten honorable mention selections, which leaves guard D.J. Burris as the lone returning starter in the trenches. The other positions will be filled by redshirt freshmen Chris Bunders (RT) and Ryan Wynn (RG), sophomore Dominic Alford (LT) and junior Jeff Tow-Arnett (C).
DEFENSE: Minnesota lost five starters from a defensive unit that struggled against both the run and the pass last year. One of those starters was defensive back Dominque Barber, who recorded 100 tackles last year and averaged 8.3 stops per game. The Golden Gophers will rebuild its defense by using a few returning starters as its foundation. Senior Willie VanDesteeg is back at right end after a broken wrist sidelined him last year. He recorded 10 sacks in 2006 and is expected to be back to his old form. Senior Steve Davis moved to that position last year, but now returns to the outside linebacker spot where he joins fellow returnee senior Deon Hightower, who was second last year with 70 tackles and has since recovered from shoulder surgery. Freshman Simoni Lawrence is expected to start in the other linebacker spot. The secondary is flanked by a sophomore and three juniors, including cornerbacks Marcus Sherels and Traye Simmons, and free safety Tramaine Brock. Strong safety Kyle Theret recorded three interceptions last year as a freshman.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Golden Gophers return both their kicker and punter from last season. Senior punter Justin Kucek ranked first in the conference last year with an average of 43.6 yards per punt. Senior Joel Monroe managed only eight field goal attempts in 2007, six of which he made, and was a perfect 21-of-21 in PATs. Marcus Sherels is expected to serve as both the Gophers' punt and kickoff returner.
MISCELLANEOUS: Quarterback Adam Weber set the school's all-time single-season and freshmen records for passing yards (2,895), passing completions (258), passing attempts (449), touchdown passes (24) and total offensive yards (3,512) in 2007. * Tim Brewster fielded 15 freshmen last year. How many of the 31 newcomers will see the field this season? * One of those could be Jewhan Edwards, who was rated as the seventh-best freshman defensive tackle by ESPN.com. * An emphasis on sweeping the non-conference slate should be on the Gophers' mind as they will turn around and hit the road in three of the first four weeks of conference play. They open the Big Ten schedule at Ohio State, host Indiana, and then travel to Illinois and Purdue.