Aug. 30, 2009
By Larry Watts
For a team offering the most returning starters (18) in the Big Ten, the University of Minnesota football squad seems to have undergone the most changes. Head coach Tim Brewster is coming off a 7-6 campaign (3-5 Big Ten) and a trip to the Insight Bowl in his second season, and he has higher aspirations for the Golden Gophers in 2009.
The changes start with a new venue for Minnesota's home games. After 27 years in the climate-controlled Metrodome, the Gophers are moving back on campus to the new open-air TCF Bank Stadium, which seats 50,700. Then there are new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Mike Dunbar and his spread offense were phased out and replaced by Jedd Fisch and his pro-style, multiple-set offense. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for Auburn and Kevin Cosgrove and Ronnie Lee, who is entering his third year coaching the defensive backs at Minnesota, have replaced him. Cosgrove is no stranger to the Big Ten after serving 14 years at Wisconsin, including nine as defensive coordinator. And then there are several transfers who will be seeing the field for the first time. How quickly the Golden Gophers adjust to all the changes will hold the key to their progress in 2009.
OFFENSE: The Gophers owned the Twin Cities after a 7-1start in 2008, but key injuries and a heartbreaking loss in the final seconds to Northwestern put Minnesota on a path to end the season with five consecutive losses. Ten starters return from that unit, but there has been plenty of shuffling going on with Fisch's new offensive system. The No. 1 objective is to turn around a rushing attack that averaged only 3.1 yards per carry and ranked last in the Big Ten. Solving that problem will make junior Adam Weber an even bigger threat in the passing game. Weber took a beating last year, even undergoing in-season knee surgery, but he didn't miss a start and still passed for 2,761 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions while gaining second-team All-Big Ten honors. Because of the decimated running attack and poor line play, his 233 yards rushing ranked second on the team. Weber's backup, redshirt freshman MarQueis Gray, is too good an athlete to leave on the sidelines, so Fisch may have to develop special packages to get the 6-foot-4 Gray into the game at quarterback or wide receiver. This year's running attack should get a big boost with the return of sophomore Duane Bennett, who went down with an ACL injury in the second game of 2008. Bennett had 92 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the opener against Northern Illinois and 100 yards in receiving against Bowling Green before suffering the injury. Sophomore DeLeon Eskridge (team leader with 678 yards rushing) took over for Bennett and the Gophers may also look to speedy redshirt freshman Kevin Whaley this season. Junior Jon Hoese has moved from running back to fullback in order to take advantage of his blocking skills. Senior All-America candidate Eric Decker returns as Weber's primary go-to man and is zeroing in on nearly all of Minnesota's receiving records. Decker has already caught 177 balls for 2,361 yards and 19 touchdowns in his career. But if defenses try to concentrate on Decker, junior college transfer Hayo Carpenter, sophomore Brandon Green (21 catches, 306 yards in 2008) and senior Ben Kuznia (31 catches, 310 yards) offer great options. TE Nick Tow-Arnett, a senior, is a dual threat as a blocker and receiver. Four starters return to an offensive line that was 10th in the conference in sacks allowed. Only (LG) Dominic Alford, a junior, retained his starting position coming out of the spring. Senior (LT) Matt Stomes (6-8, 312) has moved over from defense while junior college transfer Jeff Willis (6-7, 350) is on the opposite side. Junior Matt Carufel, a transfer from Notre Dame, has moved in at right guard. Sophomore Trey Davis is battling senior Ryan Wynn, a returning starter, at center. Returning starters (RT) Nedward Tavale, a senior, and (LG) D.J. Burris, a junior, will also be in the mix.
DEFENSE: As the offense ground to a halt during the final half of the season, the time on the field eventually wore down the defense. The Gophers' still tied for the league lead in sacks (34), but they lost defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg (10.5 sacks) to graduation. Eight starters return on the defensive side of the ball, starting with senior tackles Eric Small and Garrett Brown, who is playing for his fourth defensive coordinator in four years. Senior Cedric McKinley hopes to fill the pass-rushing void left by VanDeSteeg on one side while sophomore Anthony Jacobs held the edge at the other end slot coming out of spring. Minnesota's linebacking corps has seniors and speed across the board. Nate Triplett will be joining returning starters Simoni Lawrence and Lee Campbell. Lawrence posted 10.5 tackles for loss while Campbell led the team with 80 tackles last year. Seniors Traye Simmons, who led the team with four interceptions, and Marcus Sherels return on the corners. Sherels missed spring drills after undergoing shoulder surgery. Junior Kyle Theret returns at strong safety while Wisconsin transfer (FS) Kim Royston represents the last line of defense.
SPECIALISTS: Minnesota's kicking game took the hardest hit by graduation. Junior Eric Ellestad has been patiently waiting three years to take over placekicking duties. Incoming freshman Dan Orseke appears to have the inside track to punting duties. Sophomore wide receiver Troy Stoudermire, who averaged 26 yards on kick returns last year, could handle all returns in 2009.
MISCELLANEOUS: Minnesota certainly won't be criticized for playing too easy a schedule under Tim Brewster so far. The Golden Gophers open the season at Syracuse (Sept. 5) while Air Force will be the guest for the TCF Stadium opener (Sept. 12) and California comes to the Twin Cities one week later. Future schedules call for dates with USC and Texas ... The Gophers will have to make their Big Ten turnaround playing one of the tougher league schedules. The rotating schedule has Indiana and Michigan being replaced by Penn State (in Happy Valley Oct. 17) and Michigan State (home, Oct. 31) ... In their last season playing on campus (1981), the Golden Gophers were 5-2 in Memorial Stadium.