Aug. 26, 2010
By Larry Watts
Minnesota faithful have to be wondering how Tim Brewster will handle a challenging 2010 slate as he heads into his fourth year at the helm of the Golden Gophers. Coming off two straight bowl appearances, the Gophers will be lining up against perhaps the Big Ten's toughest schedule, one that includes the likes of Southern California plus four conference opponents (Northwestern, Penn State, Ohio State and Iowa) that played in major bowl games last January. And they will all be coming to TCF Bank Stadium.
To make the situation even more challenging, the team has only two returning starters on defense. And one of those starters, senior free safety Kim Royston, is coming off a compound fracture in his left leg during the spring game.
Offensively, the Gophers return nine starters, which they hope will lead to a more productive unit. In 2009, Minnesota ranked last in the conference in scoring, rushing and total offense.
OFFENSE: While there are many familiar faces, the biggest change on offense is a new coordinator. Jeff Horton becomes the Gophers' third coordinator in three years, which also means senior quarterback Adam Weber will be working with his third different coordinator in three seasons. Recruited to a spread offense, where he threw for 39 touchdowns and over 5,600 yards in his first two seasons, Weber's numbers dipped to 2,582 yards (13 TDs. 15 interceptions) when the Gophers went to a pro-style attack with multiple formations last year. However, Horton's system is more simplified and early returns indicate Weber, who has started 38 consecutive games, is more comfortable as he should become the fifth quarterback in Big Ten history to pass for over 10,000 career yards (he needs 1,762). In addition to adjusting to a new offense, Weber also has to adjust to the absence of go-to receiver Eric Decker, who was limited to only eight games in 2009. Juniors Troy Stoudermire (26 receptions, 306 yards), Da'Jon McKnight (17, 311) and Brandon Green (21, 293) will need to make big improvements in the receiving corps. Sophomore Bryant Allen should also see plenty of action after breaking his ankle in the spring. The athleticism of backup quarterback MarQueis Gray, a sophomore, poses a threat both in the running game and as a receiver. Also lost to graduation was tight end Nick Tow-Arnett, the team's second-leading receiver, and junior college transfer Tiree Eure (6-7, 245) will get the first shot at filling his shoes. Juniors DeLeon Eskridge (294 yards, 3 TDs) and Duane Bennett (376 yards, 6 TDs) each had their moments in a hapless rushing attack during the 2009 campaign and need to take a big step forward. That job should be a little easier since senior fullback Jon Hoese (6-2, 233) returns and the entire front line remains intact. Left tackle Dominic Alford (6-3, 336), center D.J. Burris (6-2, 290), right guard Matt Carufel (6-5, 302) and right tackle Jeff Willis (6-7, 365) are all seniors while left guard Chris Bunders (6-3, 322) is the lone junior.
DEFENSE: This will be a work in progress and the Gophers are bound to go through some growing pains. However, Brewster is counting on the fact his defenders have more speed and depth this year. Royston has made a quick recovery from surgery, but how soon he will be ready for game action is the big question. The other returning starter is strong safety Kyle Theret, who led the Gophers with three interceptions last year and has 32 career starts, but he was suspended from the spring game. Up front, junior tackles Brandon Kirksey (6-2, 295) and Jewhan Edwards (6-2, 333) should be bookended by promising freshman Ra'Shede Hageman (6-6, 272) and sophomore D.L. Wilhite (6-4, 233). Former safety Mike Rallis, who broke his leg last year against California, is expected to lead the linebacking group, which figures to include sophomore Keanon Cooper and junior Gary Tinsley. Senior Ryan Collado and sophomore Michael Carter went into camp with the edge on the corners, an area where the Gophers have little depth. Kyle Henderson, a transfer from Minnesota-Mankato, will also be pushing for game action. Junior college transfer Christyn Lewis and redshirt freshman Kenny Watkins should add depth at safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Golden Gophers' kicking game appears to be in solid shape. Senior Eric Ellestad returns as the placekicker, where he converted 13 of 17 field goals last year. However, he was 0-for-3 past 40 yards. Dan Orseske had nine punts for a 44.6-yard average, but mononucleosis prematurely ended his season and he has regained his freshman eligibility. Both return men, Stoudermire (kickoffs) and Allen (punts) are back in the fold. Stoudermire returned 43 kicks for a 24.6-yard average and Allen fielded six punts for a 12.2-yard average.
MISCELLANEOUS: Minnesota's offensive line leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth nationally with a combined 114 starts among its returning players. Weber, Hoese, Royston and Kirksey have been voted as captains for the 2010 season. Weber is the first three-time captain in school history. Bringing Paul Bunyan's Axe back from the rivalry game at Wisconsin would mean a lot to the Gophers, especially Royston who was playing for the Badgers during their 41-24 victory in 2007. Minnesota opens its season Sept. 2 at Middle Tennessee State, a favorite to win the Sun Valley crown. The Gophers then return to Minneapolis for four straight home games, starting with South Dakota Sept. 11.