2006 Minnesota Football Preview
Aug. 29, 2006
2005 Record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
After putting together a string of four straight bowl berths, and six years of postseason play in the past seven, Minnesota's turn-around during head coach Glen Mason's nine-year tenure is unmistakable. With four consecutive winning seasons and the return of seven starters on each side of the ball, the Gophers are ready to look forward to another milestone: claiming their first Big Ten title since 1967.
Although the loss of three All-Americans on offense has some already counting the Gophers out of this year's conference championship race, tight end Matt Spaeth assures they will be right in the hunt. Whether anyone else outside of Minneapolis takes note before kickoff on Aug. 31 won't discourage the senior co-captain, but the Gophers did snag several votes in the preseason AP poll.
"As a team in general, we are off the radar. No one is really expecting us to finish high in the Big Ten and that's the way we like it," he said. "I'd rather it be that way, so we can come out and we don't have a target on our back. Hopefully we can surprise some people and be the underdog. We know as a team what we are capable of and know the type of players we've got. We don't think we're going to finish where everyone else thinks we are, but at the same time we'll let them think what they want."
The biggest question facing Mason surrounds the running game. The Gophers' offensive staple has produced an unprecedented streak of two 1,000-yard rushers each of the past three seasons - a first in NCAA Division I-A history. Without All-America running back Laurence Maroney, departed for the NFL Draft, the Gophers are trying to overhaul a backfield consisting of one semi-experienced workhorse, a couple untested backs with rising potential and an unexpected talent.
Junior Amir Pinnix vaulted to the top of the depth chart after showing flashes of talent as a backup for Maroney and Gary Russell last season. He earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors after cranking out 206 yards and a scoring run against Michigan State. Junior college transfer Brylee Callender - who made a good impression in the Gophers' spring game - and redshirt freshman Jay Thomas will have to play catch-up in experience as backups. The surprise player in the backfield mix is sophomore Alex Daniels, who was expected to compete with senior co-captain Mike Sherels as the star of the defense in the middle of the linebacking corps.
The crew out of the backfield will not have the luxury of developing a solid run game behind All-American linemen Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom, who led a unit that allowed a mere three sacks and set up 3,277 rushing yards. Replacing the two key bricks in one of the most productive line in America from 2005 is an arduous task, but the Gophers will be able to rely on a now-healthy tackle Joe Ainslie and the versatile combination of Tony Brinkhaus and Tyson Swaggert inside. One of the group's most resourceful talents, Brinkhaus will take over for the Outland Trophy-winning Eslinger at center. Junior tackle Steve Shidell started every game last season in place of the injured Ainslie, who will also return to anchor the line as the team's best run blocker at right tackle.
Despite all the fixation on reconstructing the running game, the Gophers' have a capable veteran QB in Bryan Cupito who is prepared to lead the in-transition offense and make their passing attack more than an afterthought. "I think it's tough to get the credit you deserve when you play for a run-oriented offense," Mason said. "Without the numbers, you may not get the attention. But without the ability to throw the ball, the running game isn't nearly as successful. The fact that we do run the ball so much is why he is probably considered underrated by many."
The fifth-year senior has started in 23 of the past 24 games, and averaged 230 yards per game last season while connecting on 59 percent of his passes. Cupito will have a talented group of targets downfield in veteran wideouts Ernie Wheelwright and Logan Payne, who both pulled down 37 catches for more than 500 yards a piece, as well as an outstanding option in Spaeth. The 6-6, 270-pound tight end is better known for his stanch blocking ability, but Spaeth is regarded by many as one of the best catching tight ends in the nation. He needs only 483 yards to take over as the school's all-time leading receiving tight end.
Renovating the defense is another priority for Mason in 2006. After giving up 34.1 points per game in league contests, the Gopher defense returns a solid, more experienced linebacking corps and two rising stars in the secondary. Finding a way to shut down the run will be key for the front line, which returns only one starter. The front four will also have to create more havoc in the backfield after counting only 15 sacks last year. Sophomores Willie VanDeSteeg and Steve Davis are quick ends who will be strong pass rushers after getting some experience as true freshmen. Tackles Todd Meisel and Erick Clark both have the size and drive to get create problems for opposing quarterbacks, but they will have to develop stronger run-blocking skills to be the leaders of the line.
With his starting job and even his ability as a team leader in question during the spring season, Sherels started firing on all cylinders. After dropping 30 pounds with a tremendous offseason work ethic, the senior will take over in the middle. Leading the unit is junior John Shevlin. The top returning tackler, he has the speed and sharpness to make even more stops at weak side linebacker this season. There is plenty of experience returning on the other sice with senior Mario Reese. Accounting for 48 tackles, two sacks and four broken up passes last year, Reese is a natural outside linebacker with solid pass-rushing ability.
In the secondary, the Gophers will have more flexibility with returning experience. Strong safety Dominic Jones and free safety Dominique Barber are showing potential to become two of the top defenders in the Big Ten. Undersized at 5-9 and 180 pounds, Jones is a big hitter with return-game speed. Veteran Jamal Harris will lead redshirt freshman Keith Massey on the corners.
"If we legitimately want to compete for a championship in this league we have to play better defense than we've been playing," Mason said. "We're awfully young on defense, but at the same time I'm confident we'll be better. If you can play well as a true freshman in the Big Ten Conference, you're only going to get better as time goes on."
After a year to break in their kicking games in the Big Ten, sophomores Joel Monroe and Justin Kucek are poised for solid second seasons. Handling all the placekicking duties when Jason Giannini struggled last season, Monroe nailed 9-of-9 extra points and a field goal. He will have to prove his leg is accurate from long range to keep his starting spot though. After 37 punts, Kucek averaged 39.4 yards per kick last year, but will need consistency this season to put the Gopher defense in prime position.
The Gophers face one of the toughest league slates in the Big Ten. They play host to Michigan and Penn State on back-to-back weekends before traveling to Wisconsin and top-ranked Ohio State, and end the year with the Big Ten's preseason No. 3 pick, Iowa, at home. Even before delving into the league lineup, Minnesota faces one of the toughest nonconference battles it has seen since Mason took over on Sept. 9 at California. The Golden Bears are ranked ninth and 12th in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls, respectively.
Mason is ready to get the proverbial show on the road, so his squad can answer all the questions it has been facing this offseason faces on the field. "I'm really anxious for our upcoming season. We're losing very few players from our 2005 ball club, but the players we lost were pretty darn good players. I've been impressed with the work ethic of the returning players. The players and I are growing tired of answering the same questions about the players we lost because we return a lot of guys who played a significant amount of football for us last year."