By Mike Gallagher
It seems like just yesterday the ball was dropping to culminate the new millennium. Y2K was about to strike the world and there was supposed to be mass chaos, riots, and darkness everywhere because computers would malfunction, all because of a few digit changes.
Well folks, we survived. Not only that, the 2000’s are almost over, and moving into a new decade makes us reminisce about the last nine-plus years.
For Minnesota Golden Gopher football, it was full of ups and downs. Ok, more downs than ups (30-50 in the Big Ten), but there was plenty of individual talent in maroon and gold.
With 18 players that went to Minnesota currently in the NFL, and legions more former Gopher contributors out doing their 9-5 gigs, who are the best ten from the 2000s? With much deliberating and many sleepless nights, here is your answer.
1. Laurence Maroney, RB, 2003-2005. Maroney only started 14 games at Minnesota, but he played in 36 while splitting time with Marion Barber III and Gary Russell. He left after his junior year and was selected 21st overall by the New England Patriots, whom he still sees significant action for. He left Minnesota as only the third player in Big Ten history to gain over 1,000 yards three straight years, and was named an All-American in 2005 by Pro Football Weekly and Rivals.com.
2. Marion Barber III, RB, 2001-2004. He had a very good freshman year, but got hurt his sophomore year and received a medical redshirt, which opened the door for Terry Jackson II to have a breakout season. Once Barber returned, he formed an explosive tandem with Laurence Maroney. They became the only duo in Big Ten history to rush for 1,000 yards each in back to back seasons. Barber left after his junior year as well, and was drafted by the Cowboys in the 4th round, but has done big things since for the team.
3. Greg Eslinger, Center, 2002-2005. The man that blocked for Barber, Maroney, and Jackson, was a force up front. An All-American in 2005, he also won the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) and Dave Rimington trophy (best center). He was drafted in the sixth round by the Denver Broncos and was last seen on their practice squad in 2008.
4. Asad Abdul-Khaliq, QB, 2000-2003. This is a tough choice, as Abdul-Khaliq gets the nod over Adam Weber and Bryan Cuptio for the top QB spot on this list. Khaliq’s numbers don’t jump off the page, but he only threw 25 interceptions in three years of starting and one year of splitting time. Khaliq also led the Gophers to their only 10 win season in school history. Some will say it was all due to the rushing game, but Khaliq managed games well and played within himself, something Weber struggles with.
5. Eric Decker, WR, 2006-2009. Decker contributed right away and came into a good situation, being thrust into the number one receiver’s role with the graduation of Logan Payne after 2006 and Ernie Wheelwright after 2007. Decker topped 900 yards twice and was on pace for over 1,100 this year before an unfortunate injury. He has 24 career touchdowns and was the weapon that held an otherwise lackluster offense together over the last three years. Should he choose football over baseball, he will be drafted by the NFL.
6. Mark Setterstrom, G, 2002-2005. Setterstrom was Greg Eslinger’s battery mate up front, and earned a great deal of honors himself. While also blocking for Maroney and Barber, his senior year the line only allowed three sacks, lowest in school history. He earned second team All-American honors his senior year and Rivals.com All-American his junior year. He was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2006 in the 7th round, and remains on the team to this point.
7. Bryan Cupito, QB, 2003-2006. Another close call at quarterback, but Cupito combined smart play with explosiveness and improved every year, culminating with a senior season that saw 22 td’s and only nine picks. He held every record in the book until Weber started to take them over this year. Still, he holds the record for career TD passes. He now coaches a 7th grade football team in Bloomington, MN.
8. Dominique Barber, S, 2004-2007. On a team not known for their defense throughout the decade, Barber stands out as the top performer while he was at the school. Darrell Reid, Michael Lehan, and Anthony Montgomery will draw more attention because of their higher draft position and better pro performances, but Barber led the team in tackling his senior year and received All-Big Ten second team honors. He was also an All Big-Ten honorable mention his junior season when he had 74 tackles and four INT’s. He was drafted by the Houston Texans in the 6th round and remains on their roster.
9. Tellis Redmon, RB, 1998-2001. Redmon is the name that often gets lost in the Gophers running back conversation. Redmon had back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons and had a short stint in the NFL after being picked up by the Baltimore Ravens.
10. Adam Weber, QB, 2006-present. He has broken nearly every Gophers passing record in the books. He put up great numbers his freshman year and was expected to do big things for the program. He led them to a surprising start in 2008, when they got up to 18th in the nation. But since then, things have gone the wrong way for Weber and the Gophers. He isn’t higher on this list because of the interceptions and lack of winning.
Notables: Ron Johnson, WR, 1998-2001: He’d be on this list had all of his years been in the 2000’s.
Terry Jackson II, Amir Pinnix, Gary Russell, Running Backs: All had one great season, but couldn’t sustain their success.
Matt Spaeth and Ben Utecht, Tight Ends: Both great tight ends, but in the grand scheme of the offense were never huge contributors. Utecht had a rough freshman and senior year. Spaeth had over 300 receiving yards only once.
Tyrone Carter, S, Ben Hamilton, C: Both didn’t play enough in the 2000’s to make this list, but were great players.