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2004 Spring Practice Preview

03/24/2004, 12:00am CST
By Cory Doffing

Gopher Football

Minnesota is coming in to spring practice this year off perhaps its best season in recent memory. Among its many accomplishments were winning 10 games for the first time in recent history and winning a second consecutive bowl game. It was arguably the best team the Gophers have had since 1967, and it certainly was the most explosive and one of the most fun to watch. Gone are important players such as Thomas Tapeh and Asad Abdul Khaliq, but plenty of younger guys are hungry and should be ready and up for the challenge.

Expectations are rising in Gopherville and for good reason. The team has put together winning seasons in four of the past five years, and many of the players who made the last two happen are back. Among the key players returning are running backs Marion Barber & Laurence Maroney. Led by those two, Minnesota smashed several offensive team records last year. Carving out the path ahead of Barber & Maroney was a young offensive line. Led by Junior All-American Greg Eslinger the O-Line returns four starters, and that will spell trouble for opposing defenses once again. The quarterbacks are the spring's biggest mystery with only one player returning. The wide receivers, while relatively inexperienced, have perhaps the most potential of becoming the next dominant position. Tight End Matt Spaeth is back. The huge sophomore filled in admirably last year while Ben Utecht was injured.

On the defensive side of the ball, many questions linger on the defensive line. The experience is there but a step up is needed from this group. The linebackers are another group with some experience and led by Terrance Campbell, this group will have the potential to be one of the fastest LB corps Minnesota has ever seen. The defensive backfield returns two corners in Trumaine Banks and Ukee Dozier but needs to replace both safties.

Last but certainly not least is that guy they call "Winston". Rhys Lloyd is back for his senior season, giving the Gophers the solid kicker you need to win close games. Rhys was fashionably late last season, joining the team just one day before their first game. Even so, he was one of the saviors of the Gophers last year with his booming kickoffs and two game winning, last second field goals.


Projected Starters "¦.
(Returning Starters are in CAPS)


Offense
Defense
WR: JARED ELLERSON "“ 6'1" 195 lbs (JR) DE: Eric Clark "“ 6'4" 240 lbs (SO)
LT: RIAN MELANDER "“ 6'7" 295 lbs (SR)DT: DARRELL REID "“ 6'2" 270 lbs (SR)
LG: MARK SETTERSTROM"“6'3" 290 lbs (JR)DT: ANTHONY MONTGOMERY"“6'5" 315lbs(JR)
C: GREG ESLINGER "“ 6'3" 280 lbs (JR)DE: MARK LOSLI "“ 6'6" 275 lbs (JR)
RG: Mike Nicholson "“ 6'5" 290 lbs (JR)LB: TERRANCE CAMPBELL "“ 6'2" 200 lbs (JR)
RT: JOE AINSLIE "“ 6'7" 305 lbs (SO)LB: KYLE McKENZIE "“ 6'1" 230 lbs (JR)
TE: Matt Spaeth "“ 6'6" 265 lbs (SO)LB: Brian Smith "“ 6'1" 225 lbs (SR)
WR: Paris Hamilton "“ 6'1" 195 lbs (SR)CB: TRUMAINE BANKS "“ 5'10" 190 lbs (SO)
RB: MARION BARBER III"“5'11" 210 lbs (JR)FS: Brandon Owens "“ 6'2" 200 lbs (SO)
RB: Laurence Maroney"“5'11" 200 lbs (SO)SS: Justin Fraley "“ 6'0" 205 lbs (SR)
QB: Brian Cupito "“ 6'1" 190 lbs (SO)CB: UKEE DOZIER "“ 6'1" 180 lbs (SR)
Special Teams
K: RHYS LLOYD "“ 6'1" 220 lbs (SR)
P: RHYS LLOYD "“ 6'1" 220 lbs (SR)



Four position battles to keep an eye on "¦.

QUARTERBACK

Players departed: Asad Abdul Khaliq, Benji Kamrath
Players battling: Bryan Cupito, Adam Ernst, John Carlson

GH.com take: Minnesota loses its top two QB's from last year, Asad Abdul Khaliq and Benji Kamrath. Only one QB from last year's roster returns this season, and that is sophomore Bryan Cupito. Bryan's main challenge will come from Junior College transfer Adam Ernst. This will likely be the position battle where we will learn the most by the springs end, as very little is known about either of these two prospects. Cupito has been in the system the longest and is probably the better long term prospect. Ernst, on the other hand, is older and has a year of playing experience in Junior College, so it's hard to say who has the clear advantage here. Cupito will likely start spring as the #1 guy, but that's just based on his experience in the offense. Not to be overlooked is freshman John Carlson. A Hopkins graduate, Carlson should actually still be in high school, but he finished up those requirements early and started attending classes at the U this past January. He certainly will have a leg up on the other freshman QB's this fall, but because of the wide open nature of this battle the opportunity is there for him to make some noise now.

Bottom Line: This is a key battle that could have a large impact on the overall success of this offense. The running game is proven, the receiving talent is there, and a good QB could make for another huge year for the offense. There appears to be no favorite going into spring.


RIGHT OFFENSIVE GUARD

Player departed: Joe Quinn
Players battling: Mike Nicholson, Tyson Swaggert, Brandon Harston, Brian Goblirsch.

GH.com take: This might be the most hotly contested battle of the spring. Mike Nicholson has got to be just busting at the seams to prove he can play. When Mike came in as a true freshman, Mason raved about him, predicting he would start at center his redshirt freshman year. But, that was before Greg Eslinger arrived on campus. Nicholson sat on the bench in '02, and then last year a spot at right tackle opened up. Nicholson won that job, but then freshman Joe Ainslie stepped up was starter by years end. Eslinger and Ainslie return, so this again is another chance for Nicholson. Mike is definitely talented enough to win it, but also ready for the challenge are sophomores Tyson Swaggert and Brian Goblirsch. Swaggert is a name that started popping up at the end of last year as a guy who could make a run for this opening, but very little is known him at this point. Goblirsch backed up Mark Setterstrom last year and will be entering his third year in the program. Mason has a history of finding lightly recruited talent in the O-line, so Goblirsch cannot be counted out.

Bottom Line: This spot will be in good hands whoever wins it. The Offensive Line should be at (or at least very close to) the level it was last year.


FREE SAFETY

Player departed: Eli Ward
Players battling: Brandon Owens, John Pawielski, Quentin White

GH.com take: Replacing Eli Ward won't be an easy task. Eli was a solid free safety for the Gophers, and was the brightest spot on an sometimes struggling defense. Leading the battle to replace Eli are a few guys; two of whom couldn't be more different from each other, Brandon Owens and John Pawielski. Owens is a blue-chip recruit from Florida; Pawielski is a walk on from Wisconsin. Owens is 6'2", Pawielski is 5'11". No contest right? Well, not exactly. Owens played some special teams last year but didn't get any looks with the first team defense in meaningful situations. Rather, Pawielski was the guy who found himself on the field in key times. While Owens is the better athlete, Pawielski has that fierce walk-on mentality that coaches love. Mason has said that Owens will be a good player when he learns the defense, but until that happens nothing is set in stone.

Another name to watch here is Junior Quinten White. After seeing playing time as a true freshman, some fans expected Quinten to have a larger role in the defense last year but he ended up being limited to mostly special teams. He has the size and athletic ability to play the position, so don't be surprised if makes a run as well.

Bottom Line: Pawielski & White might be good free safeties for us, but most Gopher fans are probably hoping that Brandon Owens wins this job. Brandon is a gifted athlete, and him winning this job would likely mean that he is learning the defense and is ready to put it together on the field. Brandon is potentially the biggest star player we have on defense, and it would a discouraging sign for his future if he rides the pine again this year.


RIGHT DEFENSIVE END

Player Departed: Paul Nixon
Players Battling: Eric Clark, Keith Lipka, Mario Reese

GH.com take: Paul Nixon and Eric Clark split time about 50/50 here last year, and overall it was one of the weaker spots on the team. Nixon accounted for only 1.5 sacks and Clark had even less with 1. Nixon was a senior, but the encouraging fact with Clark is that he was just a redshirt freshman and has a lot of time to improve. Expect Clark to take a big step up going into the spring, but he will have some competition. Keith Lipka has the most experience of the challengers, but it really isn't that much. He didn't see hardly any action at all last year, and accumulated only 7 tackles and 1 sack. Mario Reese may be used as a situational pass rushing specialist, but the best guess at this time is not is not big enough to play full time. Based on the lack of experience of Lipka, Reese & Clark, don't be surprised if a younger player such as Maurice Buchanan steps up. Maurice redshirted as a true freshman and didn't see much action his redshirt year, but there would be no better time than now for him to make a move.

Bottom Line: Hopefully a large amount of competition happens here this spring, because the Gopher defense needs a large upgrade in production from this spot. The pass rush was the weakest area of the defense last year, and in order for things to improve this season there will need to be MUCH better play from the defensive ends.


Other new faces "¦.

RUNNING BACK

Justin Valentine is an another great talent at running back for the Gophers. Given all of the depth Minnesota already has at tailback, look for Valentine to see some snaps at fullback instead. Replacing Thomas Tapeh may be impossible, but Valentine should provide some excitement. Maurice Alexander is with the team after originally committing in 2002 but not qualifying. Maurice is also joining a crowded position but has the potential to be used in a variety of ways; anywhere from running back to wide receiver to kick returner.

WIDE RECEIVER

Even though Paris Hamilton technically is not a new face, his ACL injury has kept him out of any game action so far. Hamilton's knee is back to 100%, and the Gopher offense is ready for him. He'll replace Aaron Hosack as a starting WR, and will bring an explosive aspect to this position the Gophers haven't seen in a while. Micah Rucker is another name to keep an eye on after good things were said about him last fall. Another redshirt freshman who will be eligible this fall Adam Galbreath. (Ernie Wheelright will not be allowed to participate in spring practice because he was a non-qualifier. He has been paying his own way to school this year and he should be ready to go for the fall).

OFFENSIVE LINE
The Gophers are well stocked with experience at this position, but the future is arriving in the form of Tony Brinkhaus, John Jakel and Steve Shidell. They'll all have their work cut out if them to break the two-deeps this year, but given the tradition of Mason's offensive line chances are they are all good players. Don't be surprised to see Brinkhaus make a move back to defensive line since the depth there is much less than the depth on offense.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Neel Allen is a likely candidate to be the top backup for Darrell Reid and Anthony Montgomery. Allen has good size and should be ready to contribute after originally committing (but not qualifying) in 2002.

LINEBACKER

John Shevlin is the big name to watch at this position. He gives the Gophers something they didn't get with Ben West: Speed. Shevlin is a former high school track star and with some added pounds is a good prospect. He should see lots of playing time, if not start by years end. Two other redshirt freshmen looking to get some playing time are Mark Mullaney and John Scroggins. Mullaney has decent speed, but it a little undersized yet and may be a year away.

CORNERBACK

Redshirt freshmen Samad Cain, Desi Steib, Stephon Rhea & Jamal Harris all are looking to battle for backup spots behind starters Trumaine Banks and Ukee Dozier. Harris and Brandon Owens were high school teammates.


Spring 2004 to do list (and other random thoughts) "¦.

  • Have at least one of the QB prospects emerge and become a leader. Much better progress could be made this fall if either Cupito or Ernst steps up and takes this job by the horns during the spring.


  • Find somebody to establish themselves at the 3rd TE spot. This may not sound like the most pressing of needs, but the 3rd tight end is used more often in our offense than in others. Last year Jarod Posthumus did a solid job here when called upon. This year Jarod will likely move up to second string with Matt Spaeth starting. Kevin Salmen or Chad Redmann, neither of whom we've heard much from so far, look like the two that could fight it out for this spot.


  • Work on improving the special teams! Because of Rhys Lloyd's success kicking the ball last year, other Gopher special team problems went largely unnoticed. In particular, Minnesota ranked 10th in the Big Ten in kickoff returns, 10th in kickoff coverage, 10th in punting.


  • Get Paris Hamilton back on the field and make a huge role for him in the offense. Paris only has one year to play with us, so hopefully the coaches don't hold anything back. He's been billed as a difference maker and we need to thoroughly explore this possibility before he's gone.


  • Determine Eli Ward's replacement at free safety and find a way to replace his run stopping skills. We don't want a repeat of 2000 and the problems we had replacing Tyrone Carter. Eli was an excellent run stopping safety; who will step up to the challenge?


  • Develop a pass rushing defensive end. QB pressure = QB's throwing the ball before they're ready = interceptions; something we were sorely lacking last year.


  • Find a combination of linebackers that works. Linebacker wasn't the strongest position on the field last year, but there is some potential with this group. Terrance Campbell plays better than his size, and John Shevlin is the emerging star. Between those two, Kyle McKenzie & Brian Smith there are a lot of possibilities.


  • Come up with even more ways for Marion Barber & Laurence Maroney to be on the field at the same time together. Greg Eslinger aside, these are the best the two best guys on the team. The offensive coaches did an outstanding job last year of mixing up the sets and tinkering with personnel to get each of them maximum touches. It worked wonders (to the tune of 2317 yards and 27 TD's), so let's see if they can top that this year.


  • Find a new holder in case Bryan Cupito becomes the QB. Bryan did a great for us last year but Tony Patterson, the backup holder, was a senior. That leaves a couple of openings here, which is a little bit scary considering we also lost our four year long snapper.


  • Remember Michigan! Use this game as motivation to correct the defensive lapses from last year. Minnesota's defense was very improved in some areas last year, but had a few games where it just totally collapsed. We will have a very solid defense this year if we can prevent these things from happening again.


  • Have one or two of the young WR's establish themselves as a legitimate 3rd & 4th option. There are a lot of bodies competing at WR, and it would ideal for this offense is a consistent 3rd thread emerged this spring to go along with Paris Hamilton and Jared Ellerson. Besides the young guys, a couple of veterans vying for time are Jakari Wallace and Keith Matthews.


  • Find a way to make up for the loss of Thomas Tapeh. Or I should say, find a way to soften the blow. Thomas was a great fullback and what he did for this running game will likely not be duplicated. If nobody jumps out that can adequately replace him, the coaching staff will need to adjust the running game slightly to help make up for it.


  • Find the personnel that will provide adequate depth at defensive tackle. Looking at the roster you have to wonder where the depth is going to come from. Neel Allen looks to the obvious choice for the top backup, but after that there are questions. There is Sam Logan, a former walkon, Tony Brinkhaus & Brandon Harston (two former DT's now playing of offense) and possibly Mark Losli or another defensive end.


  • Cement backups behind Rian Melander and Joe Ainslie at the tackle positions. Brian Moss and Lance Sannes look like they're next in line, hopefully both of them are up to task of being backups.


  • Stay Healthy!!!



What's all this mean? "¦.

Minnesota has not come into spring practice off a season as successful as last since 1968. With a great season behind them and the likelihood of more success to come, this spring (on paper anyway) should be an upbeat one. Several key position battles are taking place, and hopefully the dreams of starting for a winning Big Ten football team will drive the competition to new heights. The coaches have done a great job in bringing in upgraded talent to the program, and now it's time for that talent to go out and establish their positions on the field. With the talk of the U of M wanting to publicize the spring game more this year, the opportunity is there to build the excitement and get the locals talking 'U' football earlier than normal. Here's to a fun and healthy spring!

Tag(s): Gopher Football