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2004 Quarterbacks Preview

05/23/2004, 12:00am CDT
By Cory Doffing

Gopher Football

Minnesota enters 2004 with virtually no experience returning in their quarterbacks. This is quite a change from last year, when the Gophers had the comfort of two fifth-year seniors to rely on. Coming into the spring there were many questions surrounding the QB position as a whole. Thankfully for Gopher fans, there appear to be many less after practice. Both Bryan Cupito and
Adam Ernst were relatively impressive in spring practice, and each showed some flashes of what could be a new explosive element to the offense. Who wins the starting QB battle and how fast that player adjusts to Big Ten football may be the key to the Gopher offense this year.

- Bryan Cupito

The favorite to win the starting QB job is sophomore Bryan Cupito. Bryan is the only QB on the Gopher roster with any experience playing D-1 football, even if it is mainly as a placekick holder. Though he has seen only very limited action playing quarterback his first two years, Bryan has had two solid years to learn from Asad Abdul Khaliq & Benji Kamrath, (who between them had a combined 10 years of quarterback experience). It is these two years of experience in the offense the gives Cupito the early edge.

Seeing that Bryan has only one career pass attempt, it's pretty tough to talk about what kind of player he is. The only significant game action Cupito has seen so far has been as the kick holder. No, the holder doesn't have the same amount of pressure as the quarterback does, but this little bit of experience should at least help Bryan out a little going into next year. His most notable achievment as holder was recovering a low snap and perfectly placing the ball on the game winning kick in the Sun Bowl.

As far as his Quarterbacking abilities go, we just really don't know at this point. What we do know is that Coach Mason was unusually open during spring practice in discussing what kinds of things Cuptio can bring to the table. Mason praised him for his abilities in adapting to the offense so far, and to nobody's surprise (and to our hopes being fulfilled) he proved himself in spring practice as an accurate passer. How big of an impact Bryan could have on the offense this season is the million-dollar question. Some are saying that all the Gopher offense needs this year is someone smart enough to hand the ball off, and others are saying Bryan's passing abilities will vault the offense to new heights. Whichever scenario evolves this year, the Gopher offense should still see its share of success.

- Adam Ernst

The other possibility to win the starting QB job is Junior College transfer Adam Ernst. Ernst will go into this fall second on the depth chart behind Cupito. At this point, not a lot of known about Adam's game, but the little bit we do know suggests that like Cupito, his primary strength is his ability to pass the ball. He did have a pretty decent spring game, throwing 9-14 for 216 yards and 1 TD, but he also threw 2 int's.

One positive going for Ernst is that he does have some game experience from Junior College. He passed for 2300 yards and 23 TD's last year following a season in which he missed most games due to injury. He originally signed with Cal out of high school, but transferred to Mt. San Antonio after one year due to a coaching change. If he has a distinct edge over Cupito it is likely his maturity (this will be his fourth year removed from high school). But coming in to and learning a new offense will be tough, so it will likely take him at least this year to become completely comfortable with the offense, something Cupito has been learning for almost two years.

- Depth

After Cupito & Ernst, we're left with the jumbled puzzle of the five freshmen QB's that Minnesota signed last winter. The battle for third sting could be quite interesting. Andre Sloan El (Philadelphia, Pa.) may be regarded as the better quarterback prospect, but John Carlson (Wayzata, MN) will have the early edge. Carlson finished his High School requirements early and has been attending the U since last winter and participated in spring practice. That gives John a significant lift heading into fall. The other player who will look to crack third string is Ohio native Mike Maciejowski. Mike is another in a long (and growing) line of Minnesota's successes in recruiting the Buckeye State. Mike does not have the abilities the others have to switch positions, so his staying at QB is likely. Rounding out the quarterback recruiting class are two more players, Tony Mortenson and David Wess. Tony comes to the Gophers from Hutchinson, MN, (he is the half brother of ex-Gopher gunslinger Cory Sauter.) If things don't work out at QB for Tony, he is a likely candidate for a position switch (Tight End might be a good possibility). Wess, of Whitehall, OH, is another QB prospect with the ability to switch positions. Mason has said that each of these five prospects will get an equal shot at quarterback. Look for the coaches to end up keeping only two of the five at quarterback if there are no major injury problems.

Around the Big Ten

"Who's that?" will be a familiar question when watching Big Ten QB's this fall, as 6 of the 11 teams lose their starters. Returning are Purdue's Kyle Orton (SR), Penn State's Zack Mills (SR), Indiana's Matt LoVecchio, Northwestern's Brett Basanez (JR), and Illinois Jon Beutjer, who was granted a 6th year by the NCAA. Orton is easily the best of this bunch and is the preseason lock as the Big Ten's best quarterback. The above list includes quite a few of the teams that figure to be in the bottom of the conference, so how well the new QB's in the conference perform will have HUGE implications on the Big Ten race. Of the newcomers, look for Michigan's Matt Gutierrez and OSU's Justin Zwick to be around the top. Not far behind could be John Stocco of Wisconsin. The sophomore looks to have the early leg up over Tyler Donovan and Matt Schabert. Iowa replaces a lot on offense, and their QB situation is still up in the air with sophomores Jason Manson and Drew Tate battling it out.

Michigan State has the huge task of replacing Jeff Smoker, and this battle may present the most complicated situation in the conference. As it stands right now, the probable starter is freshman Stephen Reaves. John Smith likes him long term, but at present is concerned about his maturity. If Reaves isn't ready to go, long time backup Damon Dowdell will likely be the guy. However, Michigan State's best QB prospect is Drew Stanton. The 6'3" sophomore tore his knee up on a special teams play last December in MSU's embarrassing Alamo Bowl loss to Nebraska. He had surgery on the knee in January and did not participate in spring practice, but hopes to be up and running by late summer. If he is healthy by fall, he will likely get the nod for Sparty.

Last Year

The Gopher offense enjoyed the ultimate comfort zone at Quarterback last season by having the luxury of two fifth year seniors. Asad Abdul Khliq broke several Gopher career passing records, and he always had great scrambling ability to go along with it. By the end of his senior season, he was an honorable mention all Big Ten pick and was perhaps the perfect guy to lead our offense. Benji Kamrath was as loyal of a backup as you could possibly find. During his five years as a Gopher he only got meaningful minutes in two games, but to his credit both of them were wins. Last season he played the second half of the Wisconsin game for an injured Asad Abdul Khlaiq and led Minnesota to three scoring drives, including the game winner which ended with a Rhys Lloyd field goal. Neither QB's put up great passing numbers, but they didn't really need to with the success of the running game.

Bottom Line

It'll be fun to watch the starting QB battle unfold this fall. Will it be Adam Ernst, the guy who has Junior College experience, or will it be Bryan Cupito, the guy who will be starting his third year in the Gopher system? No matter who wins the QB battle, we already know one thing: This is an absolutely ideal situation for any new QB to walk in to. With the Minnesota running backs primed for another big year, a very good offensive line returning and a potentially explosive receiving corps, Minnesota has everything in place that any new quarterback could possibly want. With the opposing defenses likely focusing their efforts on stopping the run (at least early in the year), the opportunity to put up big passing numbers really will be there for either of the two passing QB candidates.

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Tag(s): Gopher Football