2006 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Golden Gophers. They only returned twelve starters and had to replace 1000 yard rushers Gary Russell and Laurence Maroney. Still they returned senior quarterback Brian Caputo and a stellar group of receivers. They always managed to go to bowl games the previous six seasons under Glen Mason, so there was always hope of going to the post season.
The season started out great with two out of conference wins over Kent State and Temple by a combined score of 106-0, but sandwiched between those games was a 17-42 loss to #22 California. The Gophers went on to start the conference schedule with four straight losses. After a 44-0 loss to #1 Ohio State the Gophers found themselves sitting at 3-6 and it appeared the season was on the brink of being lost. But Minnesota rallied to win their last three games against Indiana, Michigan State, and Iowa to qualify for their seventh bowl in eight years.
They squared off against a very good Texas Tech team in the Insight Bowl. Someone should have given the Gophers some insight into how to hold a lead. They carried a 38-14 lead into the fourth quarter and gave up 24 unanswered points to send the game into overtime where they Gophers eventually lost 44-41. The loss was so embarrassing that Glen Mason was fired a few days later.
Enter new head coach Tim Brewster. I'll let MGoBlog tell you all about him.
* a tight end at Illinois
* tight ends coach at North Carolina
* tight ends coach at Texas
* tight ends coach with the San Diego Chargers
* tight ends coach with the Denver Broncos.
So, like, f-in' A, dude. Minnesota tight ends are going to kick ass.
Does it look like I have all the answers?
And as Brian says, for the rest of the team, who knows? He has worked for some good coaches including Mack Brown in Texas and Mike Shanahan in Denver. And word has it he is a fantastic recruiter, so it's possible in a few years Minnesota could be pulling in some high end talent. We'll see if he can get over the hump Mack Brown had to overcome: a great head coach in February that turned average in September. He's already off to a shaky start after having to dismiss four players for their involvement in the sexual assault of an 18 year old woman.
Looking at stats from last year probably doesn't make much sense if you want to draw predictions for this year. A new coaching staff is going to have a new style of play. They may or may not have the players to do it. Brewster hired Mike Dunbar to play the part of offensive coordinator. If his past as OC for Northwestern from 2001-2005 is any indication we may see the Golden Gophers sway more toward a spread passing offense from the power running game we are accustomed to seeing from Mason coached teams.
They may have to wait a year if they plan on instituting a spread offense. That's because they have to replace three year starting quarterback Brian Cupito. With names like Henne, Smith, Stocco, Tate, and Stanton dominating the conference media in 2006, Cupito never really got the recognition he deserved. His senior year he completed 59% of his passes for 2819 yards and a 22-9 TD-INT ratio. He graduated as Minnesota's all time leading passer with 7,446 yards. Replacing that much production will not be easy.
The leading candidate appears to be junior Tony Mortensen. Much like Penn State's Anthony Morelli, Mortensen finds himself a starter in his third season with very little real game experience. In 2006 he only played in three games during garbage time against Kent State, Temple, and Ohio State. He attempted 10 passes, and only completed two of them not including the two he threw to the other team. Don't be surprised if we see redshirt freshman Adam Weber get a shot. New coaches with new schemes tend to put younger players on the field early on. They know the first year or two are going to be an adjustment period so they like to give the younger guys added experience for when they are juniors and seniors and there is more pressure on the coach to win.
Further indication of a predicted drop off in the passing game is the departure of the top two receivers from a year ago in wide receiver Logan Payne and Matt Spaeth, winner of the John Mackey award for the nation's best tight end. It's time for senior wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright to step up and contribute as an all around receiver. He's tall and fast and he's been a fantastic deep threat throughout his career never averaging less than 15 yards per catch for a season. But he's never had more than 37 catches in a year which is about three catches per game. He'll have to get the ball more often and take on a higher percentage of the offense to help take the pressure off the new quarterback. Lining up at the other flanker spot is sophomore Eric Decker. He had an impressive spring and caught four passes from Mortensen in the spring game for 80 yards and a touchdown. But to run a spread offense you need at least three and preferably four legitimate wide receivers. After Wheelwright and Decker the Gophers have a junior college transfer and a bunch of freshman.
The best weapon returning on offense is running back Amir Pinnix. The 6'0" 205 lb senior started ten games last year in rushing for 1272 yards and 10 TD. He's a steady back that will churn out four and five yard runs, but once he gets in the open field he lacks the breakaway speed to take it all the way. Jay Thomas is the breakaway threat. He only saw 37 carries last year after coming off knee surgery. He should get more carries this year and be a bigger part of the offense. Sophomore E.J. Jones was expected to provide some depth, but he was one of the four players dismissed from the team, so running back depth could become a major issue if the injury bug bites.
One thing you could always depend on was Glen Mason teams having great offensive lines. Minnesota has produced 1000 yard rushers each of the past eight seasons. Some years they even produced two 1000 yard backs. The Gophers executed the cut blocking scheme. This is pretty similar to the system used by the Denver Broncos, so I would expect Brewster to continue that philosophy. Three guys return on the offensive line from last year so they should be reasonably stable. Ryan Ruckdashel appears to have the left guard spot nailed down. He played in 11 games as a freshman so he has experience. Left tackle raises some red flags though. The contenders are junior Matt DeGeest and redshirt freshman Dominic Alford. Like I said before, look for the coach to play the younger player. Expectations are low this year so Brewster may throw him to the wolves and let him learn on the job.
Brewster hired Everett Withers to coach the defense for the Gophers. Withers has held various positions in college and the NFL. Most recently he was the defensive backs coach for the Tennessee Titans since 2001. A major point of emphasis for Brewster will be making the Minnesota defense tougher and more aggressive than they were under Mason.
A good place to start would be the defensive line. The Gopher defensive line was a minor speed bump to opponents last year giving up 158 yards on the ground. Only Temple and the John L. Smith lead "Throw It Till You Die!" Michigan State Spartans failed to top 100 yards against Minnesota. Even Pass Happy Joe Tiller managed to roll up 178 yards on the Gophers. DE Willie VanDeSteeg is the only guy returning with talent to speak of. He had ten sacks a year ago. Alex Daniels was a front runner to hold down the other defensive end spot, but he got booted from the team as well. So now it's going to fall on one of two sophomores: Willie Dyson or Raymond Henderson. The defensive tackles will be a rotation of Eric Small, Todd Meisen, and Neel Allen. The biggest of these three guys is only 285 lbs, so I suspect we'll see teams successfully run over this line once again.
At linebacker, Mike Sherels returns in the middle and John Shevlin returns on the outside. These guys only combined for one sack and 8.5 TFL last year. Run Stoppers they're not. Mario Reese is gone and in his place is Steve Davis who played defensive end a year ago. It's always a red flag when a player who played at one position last year starts at another position this year. Now that Daniels is gone we may see the Davis-to-linebacker move re-evaluated. You have to think linebacker depth and talent will be an issue for the Gophers.
I'm not very optimistic on the Minnesota secondary. Cornerback Dominic Jones was their best player having won honorable mention Big Ten honors last year, but he was dishonorably dismissed from the team last week along with fellow cornerback Keith Massey. To put it bluntly, this secondary is not deep and they are not good.
This is where the loss of Dominic Jones is really going to hurt. Jones was one of the Big Ten's most electrifying return men averaging 11.5 yards per punt and 24.6 yards per kickoff. Replacing him will be difficult. The punter and kicker both return, but Giannini and Kucek are average at best.
The out of conference schedule is laughable with Bowling Green, Miami of Ohio, Florida Atlantic, and North Dakota St. These should be four easy wins that at least put Minnesota in contention for a bowl game. The conference schedule doesn't give them many breaks, but it could be worse. They get Ohio State and Wisconsin at home but get Michigan and Iowa on the road. They luck out in missing Penn State but probably wish they had Michigan State on the schedule this year.
Give Brewster a Ten Year Contract Extension If...
Mortensen or Weber play well. Pinnix and Thomas are the second coming of Russell and Maroney. Ernie Wheelwright learns a few more routes and catches everything thrown his way. The offense and defense pick up the new schemes quickly. The left tackle situation gets settled. Each person on the defensive line puts on 20 or 30 lbs and learns to hold their ground. The linebackers get tough and the secondary plays respectable coverage. Best case scenario the Gophers sweep their out of conference games and manage to pull off conference wins against Purdue, Indiana, Illinois, and Northwestern. Minnesota goes 8-4 with a trip to the Alamo Bowl.
Cancel the New Stadium Plans If...
The quarterbacks suck. Wheelwright drops every pass under 20 yards. The offensive line struggles to learn the new system. The defensive plays like last year. Worst case scenario I could see Minnesota dropping a few out of conference games and getting swept in the conference schedule going 2-10.
Here we have a team learning a new system implemented by a coach with no head coaching experience. They are going to a spread offense while breaking in a new quarterback with only two legitimate wide receivers to throw to. Left tackle is a serious concern as is the entire defense. Heavy distractions as well as depth issues loom over this team with the dismissal of EJ Jones, Dominic Jones, Keith Massey, and Alex Daniels. The kickers are meh and nobody knows who is going to return kicks now. All of this has the looks of a train wreck about to happen. I think Minnesota will drop two out of conference games, but they'll get one back somewhere in the conference schedule. Magic Eight Ball says 3-9.