2010 Minnesota Gophers Football Season Preview

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With the 2010 college football season just hours away from opening for the Minnesota Gophers, Tim Brewster and Gopher faithful alike can’t be too comfortable heading into the opener at Middle Tennessee State.  

2009 was yet another mediocre year for the Gophers, winning six games and losing in the, ahem, prestigious Insight Bowl to Iowa State 14-13.

In truth, the 2009 campaign could’ve, and probably should’ve ended without a bowl for the Gophers.

Minnesota had to eek out a 16-13 win at home against FCS (formerly D1-AA) South Dakota State in their second-to-last game of the year to earn that bowl spot, which is a sad enough statement in itself.

But it doesn’t stop there.

The Gophers had to scrape together six wins in a year where nearly all their contributors were seniors.

They won’t have the luxury of having Eric Decker, Nate Triplett, Jeff or Nick Tow-Arnett, Lee Campbell, Simoni Lawrence, Cedric Mckinley, Treye Simmons, and Marcus Sherels among others.

Those were their most productive players last year, some of which, in the cases of Decker, who is going to see major reps for Denver this year, and Triplett, who is fighting for a spot on the Vikings, have NFL talent.

It’s hard to picture the Gophers even winning a game without all of those contributors, but they’ll set out to win their first tonight against Middle Tennessee State.

In preparation for that game, and the entire 2010 Gophers season, here’s what the Gophers will need to do on each side of the ball in order to have success this season.

OFFENSE:  For a team that was 111th in the nation in rushing yards and 100th scoring out of 120 teams in the FBS in 2009, you gotta go back to the drawing board.

You can’t put your finger on just one thing the Gophers need to improve, it’s passing, it’s rushing, it’s blocking, it’s everything on the offensive side of the ball.

The most important position on the field is quarterback so let’s start there.

Adam Weber has taken repeated steps backward since his freshman year in every department, culminating in last year, which can only be classified as an utter failure.

Weber ranked 104th of 115 qualifying quarterbacks in 2009 in passer rating, while ranking 111th in completion percentage.

That has led some naysayers, myself included, to call for Marqueis Gray to start the season as the Gophers QB.

Gray, though, when given the opportunity, didn’t exactly take advantage passing the ball.

The Gophers number two QB was 6-15 with one touchdown and one interception, while also surrendering a few costly fumbles.

Gray is not the most gifted quarterback, but he brings an added dimension to the position as the team’s best runner of the ball, which leads me to still think that he belongs under center for the Gophers.

Instead, Gray is competing for a starting wide receiver spot while training as the backup to Weber, putting Marqueis in more of a Kordell Stewart, triple threat-type role.

Having Gray in the mix at receiver should show the interested public how desperate of a condition the position is in for Minnesota.

With their two best pass catchers, Decker and Tow-Arnett, both graduated, it’s hard to find a number one receiver on the roster.

Junior receivers Da’Jon Mcknight and Troy Stoudermire both showed flashes last year, especially Mcknight in the last five games of the season, but both struggled with consistency and will need to harness their natural abilities to fill the shoes of Decker.

Stoudermire put up 245 all-purpose yards in the Gophers spring game, and expect him, not Gray, to be the multiple threat guy on this team.

Former four-star recruit Brandon Green, also a junior, has not fulfilled his promise at all, but this is his opportunity to seize control of this receiving core and show that he can be the number one target the Gophers expected him to be when they brought him in.

The running game was, and now continues to be a disaster with the offseason parting with redshirt freshman Kevin Whaley after an arrest.

Whaley showed promise last year and was quite honestly the Gophers best running back coming out of the 2009 season, but it took him only a few hours after the Gophers bowl game to be arrested on assault and disorderly conduct charges after punching two security guards at an Arizona nightclub.  He has since transferred to Tennessee-Martin after being suspended from the Gophers program.  Tennessee-Martin has called him the “jewel” of their recruiting class.

That leaves Minnesota with junior Deleon Eskridge and redshirt junior Duane Bennett to likely split carries in the backfield with newcomers Lamonte Edwards and Donnell Kirkwood being the highly touted backups.

The running backs are not a bad group, but as the 99.5 yards a game on the ground coupled with the 38 sacks the offensive line gave up last year on Adam Weber (4th worst in the nation) will tell you, it all starts up front.

That’s where the offense will either boom or bust this year, and that’s what makes it even worse that the Gophers lost out on the nation’s #1 recruit, Seantrel Henderson.

Still, the Gophers did bring in some good offensive line prospects.

Jimmy Gjere was the 19th ranked guard in the nation and the coaching staff is also high on freshman Jonathon Ragoo.  Still, all the incoming freshman are likely to redshirt.

With such a veteran group, it’s not hard to see why.

Jeff Tow-Arnett is gone as the starting center, but fifth year senior D.J. Burris will step right in the middle of the trenches with senior behemoth (6’7”, 350) Jeff Wills and redshirt freshman Ed Olson at the tackles, and fifth year senior Matt Carufel and fourth year junior Chris Bunders will take the guard spots.

Even the reserves have been around, as fourth year junior Ryan Winn and fifth year senior Dominic Alford will likely be the main backups.

Although this is an older group, only Burris and Bunders have starting experience.  Alford does as well, but appears to have been beaten out for his starting spot.

Considering the performance last year from the offensive line, perhaps it’s a positive thing to see the coaching staff re-tooling up front.

If the offense is to get anywhere this year, and let’s be honest, there’s nowhere to go but up, the offensive line will have to work as a group and move some people off the ball.

If you’re Tim Brewster, you sit the offensive line down and have them watch every game from last year.  When the tapes are finished you stand up and just keep it simple:  ‘You see that?  Now go do the opposite.’

DEFENSE:  Well it’s not AS bad.

That being said, the defense wasn’t exactly spectacular last year either, but did rank in the top half of FBS teams in points against at 23.8.

But things are definitely similar on defense as they are on offense.

The Gophers will have to replace their entire front seven, as well as find competent replacements for Marcus Sherels and Treye Simmons, the team’s starting corners the last two years.

Kyle Theret and Kim Royston will still be in them secondary for the Gophers, so that will be the least of the Gophers problems.  Expect last year’s contributors sophomore Michael Carter and senior Ryan Callado to see major time this year and a combination of the four to see the majority of the time at the corner and safety positions.

The defensive line will obviously be very important because if they get no pressure, it won’t matter who is in the secondary.

Although Brandon Kirksay and Jehwan Edwards don’t have a great deal of starting experience, they are both juniors and have been around the program.  They are expected to be very productive upfront and complimented by third year sophomore D.L. Wilhite and redshirt freshman Ra’Shede Hageman off the end.

Hageman is an athlete at 6’6”, 294, and was recruited at tight end before Brewster decided to bring him to the defensive side of the ball.  Wilhite is smaller and a speed rusher, a good compliment to Hageman’s power off the other side.

Linebackers, while losing three very productive ones, almost seem like a foregone conclusion at this point.

Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis, both third year sophomores, made contributions last year on special teams and Cooper is the team’s leading returning tackler, and they are expected to start on the outside.

Gary Tinsley, who is better known for his part in a fight last year that led to him being shot in the leg with pepperballs fired by police, looks like he has the middle linebackers spot locked up.  He will have to show he has matured since that incident and step up to lead this defense to a stellar season, because without a defense that was even better than last year’s, this team will struggle to make a bowl.

As for the game tonight against Middle Tennessee State, it will by no means be a pushover affair.  For that matter, the Gophers will not be pushing anyone over this year, they’ll have to grind for every win they will get.

Middle Tennessee finished second in the Sun Belt conference and won ten games, defeating Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl.

They have an offense that put up over 400 yards/gm last year and their quarterback, Dwight Dasher, is very mobile and the Blue Raiders will attack you in a number of different ways.

The Gophers defense will be tested and it will need to respond, because should the Gophers lose this game, it would be crippling to the rest of their season.

A lot will be shown in this first game and every performance for the next two weeks leading up to the week three game against #14 USC will be crucial to the teams readiness going into it’s biggest nonconference clash in years.

-Mike Gallagher

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