New blood infuses with old as Gophers set to begin season

By Anthony Zilis

The new word for the new year for Minnesota is just that – new.

The team opens a new, open-air TCF Bank Stadium this year, moving from the stuffy Metrodome.

Jedd Fisch takes over as the new offensive coordinator after serving as Broncos wide receivers coach in 2008, while former Nebraska defensive coordinator steps in as co-defensive coordinator for the Golden Gophers. Tim Davis steps in as offensive line coach after holding the same position at Alabama and USC.

“What we’re talking about is some very veteran, experienced coaches, and they’re proven coaches,” head coach Tim Brewster said. “I think Tim Davis is as fine an offensive line coach as there is … Kevin Cosgrove, he’s one of the outstanding defensive coordinators in college football.”

Notre Dame transfer Matt Carufel and tackle Jeff Willis will transform the right side of the offensive line, while top recruit MarQueis Gray should see time at quarterback.

Still, junior quarterback Adam Weber and senior receiver Eric Decker return to bolster an offense for a team that started off 2008 7-1.

“I think Adam is on outstanding player,” head coach Tim Brewster said. “He’s taken every snap for the past two years, and gives us tremendous leadership at the quarterback position.”

Of course, that team also lost its last five games. This Minnesota team has a history of disappointing fans, after finishing a disastrous 2007 1-11.

The Gophers know that they have to change this trend if they want to fill up that brand new stadium.

To turn things around, the Gophers plan on reverting to a power running game, bucking the popular trend of teams converting to spread offenses. The Gophers plan on using fullback Jon Hoese much more, and at 375 and 303 pounds, Willis and Carufel lend themselves to this type of offense.

“I certainly believe under Tim Davis’ guidance we’re going to have a much improved offensive line this season, and we’re going to obviously need to run the ball better,” Brewster said. “With those guys, I think we will.”

A strong offensive line will be important, with youth at the running back position. Sophomores Duane Bennet and DeLeon Eskridge and redshirt freshman Kevin Whaley are all expected to get time at the spot.

Brewster expects all three to contribute to an improved rushing attack

“I would like to play all three of those backs,” Brewster said. “We’ve got a plan for how we’re going to utilize all three, specific plays, that type of thing. Then we’ll see who is feeling it, who is playing the best as we move into the third and fourth quarter, seeing whether or not a guy is really picking up some steam and some confidence and playing well.”

The defense loses only three starters in ’09, but they were big ones. Willie VanDeSteeg was big in the pass rush in ’08 for the Gophers, while linebacker Deon Hightower and the safety Tramaine Brock each finished in the top four in tackles last season.

“It’s going to be tough to fill his shoes,” linebacker Lee Campbell said of VanDeSteeg. “I definitely think we have the guys to do it. We have some great defensive tackles and ends. Overall, I think we have a really good pass rush with our linebackers and defensive backs.“

Still, defensive end Cedric McKinley and tackle Eric Small bolster a defensive line that could be strong, but has very little depth.

The line was impressive in ’08, and could do the same in ’08 discounting injury.

Three seniors, Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett, and Simoni Lawrence make for a veteran starting corps at linebacker.

Seniors Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels should start at cornerback, while juniors Kyle Theret and Kim Royston will start at safety.

All in all, the Gopher defense will be a very experienced unit when they take the field against Syracuse to open the 2008 season.

Of course, if 2009 is anything like last year, the Gophers’ play at the beginning of the season isn’t the question. What the Gophers need to prove is that they can finish out a season.

Otherwise, administrative heads may roll and the new stadium may be on the empty side.