University of Minnesota
The 2009 captains, from left: Garrett Brown, Eric Decker, Lee Campbell, Simoni Lawrence, Adam Weber, and Eric Small.
Photo: courtesy University Athletics
Bank on success
The Gophers hope to vault to new heights in 2009
By Rick Moore
For months, fans of Gopher football have been casting their gaze in the general vicinity of 2009 University Avenue S.E. as TCF Bank Stadium—the shiny new jewel of the Big Ten—has emerged from a nondescript parking lot. But beyond the exhilaration of returning to campus, the question on most fans' minds is whether the 2009 Gophers will emerge as serious contenders on the field of play. This year's team is loaded with intrigue and potential, along with a few scattered question marks.
Last year's 7-6 record—counting the 42-21 loss to Kansas in the Insight Bowl on New Year's Eve—was a major turnaround for the Gophers, who struggled to a 1-11 mark in 2007, head coach Tim Brewster's first season. In fact, no team in Division I football increased its win total by more games last year. Still, 2008 was a tale of two seasons. After starting the season 4-0 against nonconference opponents, the Gophers fell to 14th-ranked Ohio State. But they bounced back with three Big Ten wins—including two on the road—to find themselves at 7-1 overall and ranked No. 20 in the nation.
The season shifted the following week in the Homecoming game against Northwestern, when an interception return for a touchdown with 12 seconds remaining gave the Wildcats the win. Losses followed against Michigan at home and Wisconsin on the road, then to Iowa, 55-0, in a bruising Metrodome finale.
Despite the bowl bid—Minnesota's eighth in 10 years—the late-season skid put a damper on what was otherwise a successful season. "Obviously, what it showed us is that we're not there yet and that we've got a lot of work to do, particularly against the upper-echelon Big Ten teams," Brewster says. "I think we got exposed late in the season from a depth standpoint."
Depth and experience are likely to transfer to the assets column for Minnesota this season. Brewster has built a reputation as a dynamic and effective recruiter, and his dedication to making the Gophers faster, bigger, and more athletic should be readily apparent.
"Our fans very much want to get behind a Big Ten champion-caliber team. The onus is on me to provide that. I think that we're where we need to be; I think we're right on track," Brewster says. "The truly exciting thing for me is to see it happening. It is unfolding the way I anticipated it to unfold."
The offense, under the direction of new coordinator Jedd Fisch and running game coordinator Tim Davis, will place more of an emphasis on establishing the running game, which averaged only 3.1 yards per rush last season. Running back Duane Bennett returns from a knee injury that ended his season last year in the second game, and leads a backfield that includes DeLeon Eskridge, Shady Salamon, Jay Thomas, and Kevin Whaley.
Junior captain Adam Weber will be back at quarterback. In two seasons, Weber already ranks second all-time at Minnesota in completions (513) and fourth in passing yards (5,656). His favorite target is senior captain Eric Decker. Decker, a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection, broke his own single-season record for receptions last year with 84, and ranks second, third, and fourth all-time in career receptions, receiving touchdowns, and receiving yards.
But watch for the ball to be spread around to a host of other returning wide receivers, including Ben Kuznia, Brandon Green, Da'Jon McKnight, and tight end Nick Tow-Arnett. Brewster feels that receiver Hayo Carpenter, a highly touted junior college transfer, can make an immediate impact, and Troy Stoudermire and David Pittman can both catch the ball and return kicks.
Also look for freshman quarterback MarQueis Gray to display his talents. Tall and lean like Weber, Gray has good speed, a live arm, and as defensive tackle Garrett Brown notes, "fluid hips."
Success likely will hinge on the improvement of the offensive line. Guards D. J. Burris and Ned Tavale are among the returnees, and junior college transfer Jeff Wills is a fully loaded refrigerator at 6 feet, 7 inches and 375 pounds. And Matt Carufel, who was ineligible to play last year after transferring from Notre Dame, is also expected to be a presence on the line.
Getting nasty on defense
Last season, while running up its 7-1 record, Minnesota was tops in the nation in turnover margin. The Gophers defense, under new co-coordinators Kevin Cosgrove and Ronnie Lee, will again count on its playmakers to step forward. Seniors Traye Simmons (four interceptions last year), Marcus Sherels, Kyle Theret, and Kim Royston are part of a veteran secondary, and senior captains Lee Campbell (who led the team with 80 tackles) and Simoni Lawrence lead a solid linebacking corps.
The other two defensive captains, seniors Brown and Eric Small, will anchor the middle of the defensive line, along with sophomores Brandon Kirksey and Jewhan Edwards. And Brewster is counting on the continued development of senior defensive end Cedric McKinley to offset the loss of Willie VanDeSteeg, who led Minnesota last year with 10.5 sacks.
Brown says fans are going to see a "nastier" defense than in previous years, and he's looking for the Gophers to be in their mid-season form of a year ago. "That's the team we want to be all the time," he says. "We want to be mentioned with those Tennessees and Texases and all those big-time teams. And I feel like this year is going to be the year that we put it all together on offense and defense and the kicking game."
Brewster feels the angst of Gopher fans who haven't had to locate Pasadena on a map since 1962, the last time the team made it to the Rose Bowl. "Our fans very much want to get behind a Big Ten champion-caliber team. The onus is on me to provide that. I think that we're where we need to be; I think we're right on track," Brewster says. "The truly exciting thing for me is to see it happening. It is unfolding the way I anticipated it to unfold."
Which should give fans even more of a reason to keep their eyes fixed on the happenings at 2009 University Avenue.