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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 83: Minnesota

He's alright, don't nobody worry about him. Worry about Minnesota in 2010 instead.

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but remind me again what stands as Tim Brewster’s area of expertise? Is it on offense? If so, here’s how Minnesota fared on that side of the ball in 2009: 100th nationally in scoring (20.9 points per game), 109th in total offense (306.5 yards per game) and 111th in rushing offense (99.5 yards per game). So Brewster is no offensive mastermind; perhaps Jeff Horton, his third offensive coordinator in as many years, will turn things around. Wait, isn’t Brewster some sort of recruiting machine? Well, maybe — even if his most recent class didn’t crack the top 50 in the country, according to Rivals.com. Of course, his recruiting acumen has meant little to this roster, which enters the 2010 season lacking any semblance of depth — not to mention proven talent — at far too many positions. Remind me again why I should have any confidence in Brewster’s ability to bring the Golden Gophers anywhere beyond a second-division finish in the Big Ten?

Conference
Big Ten

Location
Minneapolis, Minn.

Nickname
Golden Gophers

Returning starters
11 (9 offense, 2 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 63

2009 record
(6-7, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 64

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    at Middle Tennessee
  • Sept. 11
    South Dakota
  • Sept. 18
    U.S.C.
  • Sept. 25
    Northern Illinois
  • Oct. 2
    Northwestern
  • Oct. 9
    at Wisconsin
  • Oct. 16
    at Purdue
  • Oct. 23
    Penn St.
  • Oct. 30
    Ohio St.
  • Nov. 6
    at Michigan St.
  • Nov. 13
    at Illinois
  • Nov. 27
    Iowa

Last year’s prediction

If for no other reason, I believe the schedule will be what prevents Minnesota from matching last season’s win total. This is unfortunate, as this squad is the most talented of Brewster’s three teams. Final record? I think opening a new stadium will provide the Gophers with a healthy dose of adrenaline in the early season, but that rush will die out quickly after a rough four-game conference stretch from Penn State-Illinois. If this team could play last year’s schedule, I’d give it eight wins. But I can’t go any higher than six: 6-6, 3-5 in the Big Ten.

2009 recap

In a nutshell One of the least impressive bowl teams in the country. After a hot start — 4-2 through Oct. 10 — the Gophers dropped five of seven, including an ugly bowl loss to Iowa State, to end the year. The offense did no favors, though the group’s poor play down the stretch can be largely attributed to receiver Eric Decker’s season-ending injury suffered against Ohio State on Oct. 24. When considering his loss, taken in conjunction with Minnesota’s horrific running game, it’s nearly a miracle that this team was able to reach six wins; to be fair, maybe Brewster does deserve a little credit. It was not a good thing, however, that this defense — one that did not rank in the top 50 nationally in any major category — was the overwhelming strength of the team. More bad news: this group lost nine starters. Returning to bowl play will be a very tall task.

High point Three solid victories in the first six weeks of the year: Air Force, Northwestern and Purdue. The first half of the year also saw Minnesota win on the road against Syracuse, though not put together a great performance, and lose to California and Wisconsin, the latter by only a field goal. However, when you’re a Gopher, losses to Wisconsin always, always hurt.

Low point For the second consecutive season, a second-half collapse. In 2008, the Gophers started 7-1 – rising as high as 17th nationally – before losing five straight. Last fall saw Minnesota open 4-2 before dropping five of seven. Included in this stretch was an embarrassing loss to Illinois, a near-humiliation at home against South Dakota State and a horrific performance against Iowa State in the Insight Bowl.

Tidbit Only five Big Ten programs have reached bowl play five times over the past six years: Minnesota (2004-6, 2008-9), Iowa (2004-6, 2008-9), Penn State (2005-9), Ohio State (2004-9) and Wisconsin (2004-9). Minnesota is the only program of the five to have not won at least eight games in any of the last six years; each the remaining quartet, in fact, has won 11 or more games at least once over that span. Minnesota and Indiana are the only Big Ten programs to have not won eight games in a season over the past six years.

Tidbit (comebacks edition) Minnesota trailed at one point in each of its six victories in 2009; yes, even against North Dakota State. In only one victory were the Gophers not losing in the fourth quarter: at Purdue on Oct. 10, a game where Minnesota rode a 21-point third quarter to a 35-20 win.

Former players in the N.F.L.

20 RB Marion Barber (Dallas), S Dominique Barber (Houston), DT Garrett Brown (Kansas City), LB Lee Campbell (New York Giants), WR Eric Decker (Denver), OG Ben Hamilton (Seattle), LB Simoni Lawrence (Philadelphia), K Rhys Lloyd (Minnesota), RB Laurence Maroney (New England), DT Barrett Moen (Seattle), WR Logan Payne (Minnesota), DE Darrell Reid (Denver), C Mark Setterstrom (St. Louis), CB Traye Simmons (San Diego), TE Matt Spaeth (Pittsburgh), TE Nick Tow-Arnett (Dallas), OL Jeff Tow-Arnett (Tampa Bay), LB Nate Triplett (Minnesota), DE Stylez White (Tampa Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Best players in Minnesota Twins history
1. OF Kirby Puckett.
2. 1B Harmon Killebrew.
3. 2B Rod Carew.
4. P Jim Kaat.
5. 1B Kent Hrbek.

Coaching

Tim Brewster (Illinois ’83), 14-24 after three seasons with the Gophers. His record at Minnesota is not helped by an ugly 1-11 season in 2007, his first year as Glen Mason’s replacement. While Brewster has lifted the Gophers to successive bowl trips over the past two years, his teams have not indicated the type of improvement the university envisioned when it tabbed the Mack Brown disciple as its 26th head coach. Brewster certainly did not make a favorable impression in his first season at Minnesota, 2007, when the Golden Gophers struggled terribly in a 1-11 finish. That team set a school record for most losses in a season and allowed the second-most points (440); Minnesota, in all its years of playing college football – 127, to be exact – had only once allowed more than 368 points in a season. Taking these facts into account, any sense of progress would have made 2008 a successful season — even if the Gophers beat no team of any consequence. The same could be said of last fall: yes, a bowl trip, but little to write home about. Minnesota is Brewster’s first collegiate head coaching job, though he has experience on both the college and N.F.L. level. As the tight ends coach and recruiting star under Mack Brown at North Carolina (1989-97) and Texas (1998-2001), Brewster was responsible for recruiting and signing some of the top talent in the nation, a major draw for the Minnesota administration. Brewster moved up to the N.F.L. after the 2001 season, coaching tight ends with the San Diego Chargers (2002-4) and the Denver Broncos (2005-6). Perhaps Brewster can coach his way out of cardboard box, something I was doubtful of after his dreadful debut. I’m still unsure of his ability to do much more than lead Minnesota to seven wins; Mason was fired for less.

Players to watch

The offensive line, awful a year ago, returns enough talent to expect a moderate improvement. They’ll have their hands full early, however, and will be sorely tested by the talented defensive fronts that litter the Big Ten. Nevertheless, the Gophers return all five linemen who ended the 2009 season in the starting lineup. The right side line of the line is spoken for: seniors Matt Carufel and Jeff Willis will return at right guard and tackle, respectively. Carufel, a former highly-touted recruit, hopes to live up his sizable billing in his final season. Willis, who looks to have slimmed down since the conclusion of last fall, has the ability to be a presence in the ground game on the strong side of the line. Another senior, D.J. Burris, has the center spot tied down; he replaced departed starter Jeff Tow-Arnett over the second half of the year after Tow-Arnett was lost to injury. The left side of the line, while not in great shape, returns senior Dominick Alford at tackle and junior Chris Bunders guard. However, look for competition to increase once Minnesota’s five incoming offensive line recruits arrive in the fall. Expecting a major boost from this young group might be too much to ask, but look for at least one, tackle Jimmy Gjere, to battle for a major role in his debut season.

Perhaps an improvement from the offensive line will result in a beefed-up Minnesota rushing attack. I wouldn’t bet on it. I do expect a spirited battle for snaps, however, especially when the five running backs inked in Brewster’s most recent class arrive on campus. Will all five contribute at running back? No, of course not. But perhaps one — in a perfect world, two — will give the Gophers a big-play threat, something sorely lacking among the returning contributors. For now, juniors Duane Bennett (team-leading 376 yards, 6 touchdowns last fall) and DeLeon Eskridge (294 yards, 3 scores) stand atop the depth chart, with neither able to pull away from the other during spring ball. Let’s see if one of the fall additions, such as Devon Wright or Lamonte Edwards, will provide a spark.

Brewster eliminated any controversy a month ago when he named quarterback Adam Weber the starter for the 2010 season. This will mark Weber’s fourth season in the starting lineup, leaving him within striking distance of many of the school’s passing records, but that there was any controversy at all heading into the spring is a sign of how Weber struggled a season ago, setting new career lows in yards (2,582), touchdowns (13) and completion percentage (52.0 percent). He’ll continue to have MarQueis Gray pushing him for snaps, though the athletic sophomore will also make an impact as a receiver and out of the Wildcat formation.

As the second half of last season illustrated, there is reason to worry about life after Eric Decker. In order to replace Decker’s lost production, the Gophers must continue to land a strong performance from junior Da’Jon McKnight, who took advantage of Decker’s injury to the tune of 17 grabs for 311 yards over the final five games of the year. McKnight may be a sure thing, but Minnesota lacks depth at the position. Perhaps this fall will see the former JUCO recruit Hayo Carpenter make an impact; he was missing in action last fall, disappointing many who expected one of the nation’s top junior college additions to have a larger impact.

The strength of the defense — such as it is — should be its secondary, though the welfare of the defensive backfield depends on the availability of its two talented safeties. Kim Royston, the team’s leading returning tackler (85, 1.5 for loss), is currently recovering from a broken leg; Kyle Theret, a three-year starter, is currently undergoing an indefinite suspension for a violation of team rules. It is imperative that Minnesota have each player, both seniors, back by September. Royston, a former Wisconsin transfer — that transition must have been difficult — played well in his first season of eligibility with the program. Theret led the team with three interceptions last fall. Sophomore Michael Carter, who started two games as a rookie, will start at one cornerback spot, while the second spot — left vacant by the graduation of Traye Simmons — will fall to one of a handful of contributors. JUCO transfer Dwight Tillman and returning contributor Ryan Collardo are the primary competitors for the starting role.

Minnesota is very young along its defensive line. It will be up to several talented youngsters to improve last season’s very average pass rush, particularly at end. Pressure will be on sophomore D.L. Wilhite; he’s capable of a 10-sack campaign. He made three sacks in limited duty a year ago, though it should be noted that all defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove asked him to do was rush the quarterback. Wilhite will need to present a more well-rounded game in 2010. A former tight end, redshirt freshman Ra’Shede Hageman, would start opposite Wilhite if the season started today. This is puzzling. How could Brewster, with his reputation as a recruiter, be forced to not only move such a young player over to the defensive line but also place him in the starting lineup? Strange.

The interior of the line seems far more solid, where both projected starters, juniors Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey, served in key roles a year ago. Edwards, who is listed at 330 pounds, is a sizable presence against the run. Kirksey is more likely to create pressure in the backfield, as he did at times in 2009; he made 16 tackles, 3 for loss. Depth here, as elsewhere, is a concern.

Position battles to watch

Bobby Bell, an all-time Minnesota great, is not walking through that door at linebacker.

Linebacker This position was devastated by graduation, losing starters Simoni Lawrence, Lee Campbell and Nick Triplett — a very good, very underrated trio. Depth at the position was further compromised following the departure of Sam Maresh and the questionable return of Gary Tinsley, who was suspended for the spring following an off-field incident. This opens up a tremendous hole at middle linebacker; one of the pair was scheduled to start the year in the middle, with Tinsley, a leading reserve last fall, projected to serve in a leadership role for this otherwise inexperienced group. Sophomore Keanon Cooper, the most athletically gifted returning contributor, is penciled in on the weak side. The Gophers have been pleasantly surprised by the play of redshirt freshman Aaron Hill, however, and the former walk-on could earn significant snaps in 2010. The battle is fierce on the strong side: sophomores Spencer Reeves and Mike Rallis have each made a claim to the starting role, with Rallis, a converted safety, currently standing atop the depth chart.

Game(s) to watch

Road games against Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois. Minnesota’s Big Ten home slate — Penn State and Ohio State, among others — is beyond difficult; it’s nasty. The Gophers must therefore make hay on the road, a tall task, in order to match last season’s win total. Keep an eye on the home crowd when U.S.C. comes to town; of course, the two schools were mired in an often-ugly recruiting battle for Seantrel Henderson, the nation’s top recruit.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I’m very skeptical about Minnesota’s chances in the Big Ten in 2010. But I’m not predicting this team to suffer a significant slide in the win column, as many are predicting; instead, I feel these Gophers remain talented enough to finish in the five-win area, short of bowl play but certainly in postseason contention. This might be giving Minnesota too much credit. The Gophers are not strong at any one position: on offense, question marks abound on the offensive line, at receiver and in the backfield; the defense must replace nine lost starters, with a very difficult transition looming at linebacker. The schedule is also a concern. As noted, the more winnable Big Ten affairs come on the road; the home slate, which includes non-conference dates with Northern Illinois and U.S.C., is extremely difficult. There is a lot to overcome, and I don’t think the Gophers have a coaching staff capable of coercing this group to more than a five-win finish. Minnesota is not bad, not great, not terrible. Little more, little less. Is this what the university envisioned out of Tim Brewster?

Dream season The Gophers are a pleasant surprise in the Big Ten, landing eight wins for the first time since 2003 and finishing in the top half of the conference.

Nightmare season There’s little chance that this team will be as bad as Brewster’s first team, which stumbled to a 1-11 finish. Yet these Gophers are certainly capable of losing 10 games, a total that would surely force the university to make coaching change.

In case you were wondering

Where do Minnesota fans congregate? Start with Gopher Hole, the hardest-working Minnesota fan site on the Web, as well as the best place to find Gopher-related sports chatter. You can find coverage of Minnesota recruiting at Golden Sports and Gopher Illustrated. It’s hard to make your mark in the blog-heavy Big Ten, but The Daily Gopher is one of the top blogs in the conference.

Up Next

Who is No. 82? Our next university’s home city is the birthplace of the 1987 PGA leader in scoring average.

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Comments

  1. jjtiller says:

    Cape Town? :)

  2. Jeff says:

    Well Cape Town doesn’t have a team, so moving on to second place is Holyoke, MA, and I dont think Holyoke Community College has a team. That leaves Mount Pleasant, MI, home of Central Michigan.

  3. Chippewayne says:

    Mount Pleasant’s finest golf course … called The Pohlcat, named after long-hitting Dan Pohl.

  4. [...] Myerbergof the Pre-Snap Read weighs in with his 2 cents on the Gophers and the 2010 season, plus gives 5 things to like and dislike about the [...]

  5. Darth PantherGopher says:

    “A former tight end, redshirt freshman Ra’Shede Hageman, would start opposite Wilhite if the season started today. This is puzzling. How could Brewster, with his reputation as a recruiter, be forced to not only move such a young player over to the defensive line but also place him in the starting lineup?”

    I’m not sure your comment makes all that much sense. Hageman played TE & DE in HS. Many teams recruited Hageman to play DE. Hageman came in as a freshman weighing ~280 which translates in to 300 lbs on a college weight training program. I can’t think of a single player that played TE at that weight. His body determined that his position was either going to be DE or LT and the Gophers decided to play him at DE. He has been there since fall camp of his freshman season so we never really “moved” him to DE.

    Also, Brewster has only had 3 classes at Minnesota so I don’t get the attempt to rip on him for starting one DE in his first class (Wilhite) and one from the second (Hageman). The two primary backups are also from his second recruiting class (Garin & Greghory-McGee). The biggest problem for this team right now is that our 2006 & 2007 classes were so bad. The only suitable DL prospect from those two classes is Anthony Jacobs who will be rotating between DT & SDE. There isn’t a LB from those classes on the roster and there are 2 servicable DB’s–hence the lack of seniors on D.

    Other than that I think it is fairly well written and thought out article.

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