Big Ten: Cedrick McKinley
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- There's a noticeable buzz around Minnesota football right now, with a new on-campus stadium opening this fall and plenty on the agenda for spring practice, which began Tuesday. The Gophers welcome new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a new offensive system, which will look more what fans are used to in the Twin Cities.
|Jeff Gross/Getty Images|
|Minnesota coach Tim Brewster is excited about the depth he has coming back this season.|
Head coach Tim Brewster saw the team improve its record by six games last fall, but the Gophers ended on a five-game slide, including a 55-0 thrashing at the hands of archrival Iowa. With 10 offensive starters back and several playmakers on the defensive side, Minnesota hopes to take another step forward this fall, but will negotiate what appears to be a much tougher schedule. Here are Brewster's thoughts on the squad as spring ball gets under way.
It seems pretty ambitious what you guys are doing this spring, with the new guys, the scheme tweaks and changes. Is it one of the more ambitious spring practice sessions you've been a part of?
Tim Brewster: I just don't think it's quite as ambitious as you think. We installed quite a bit of the offense before the bowl game. To me, what's exciting about where we're at is we've got some depth, we've got some experienced players, but more importantly, some really talented players coming back. And then when you add to the mix guys like [linebackers] Keanon Cooper, Spencer Reeves and Gary Tinsley, some of these guys particularly on defense, that's really an exciting thing for us.
You said you wouldn't trade [quarterback] Adam [Weber] for anybody in the country. You also think highly of MarQueis Gray. Do you envision MarQueis just sitting and waiting the next two years?
TB: No, no. We're going to incorporate MarQueis into every game. We'll go in with a plan on how we're going to utilize him. I brought [Texas offensive coordinator] Greg Davis up here from Texas, and I talked to Greg about how they incorporated Vince [Young] into the game plan in Vince's redshirt freshman year. He played every game, but what was the real thought process that went into it. We really had some good conversations on how to do that. It's a tough thing because of the flow of the game. You say, 'I want him to play the third series.' Well, something may dictate that the third series, you want to keep Adam in the game. But he'll make a contribution. Heck, MarQueis could play wide receiver. MarQueis could be a running back. There's a lot of different ways to utilize a player of his ability.
Does it help to have that reference point with Vince Young?
TB: Very strong similarities between the two. But the biggest challenge is this: We've been really lucky. Adam Weber's taken every snap. At some point, injuries happen. Is MarQueis Gray ready to step in and drive this car and run this offense? That's the biggest challenge that [new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch] has, making sure MarQueis Gray is ready to be a full-time quarterback. He's the No. 2 quarterback at worst right now, so that's a real challenge.
It seems like line play is going to be a focus on both sides of the ball.
TB: Yes, and I think we're going to be much better up front. It really helped moving [left tackle] Dom Alford inside. Ryan Wynn is a very talented guy who was playing right tackle. He doesn't need to be a right tackle. He'll play at center, possibly at guard. Matt Carufel, also [at guard]. And then you look at the development of [left tackle Matt] Stommes. Stommes' measurables, shoot, the NFL people who have come in here have said, 'Who the heck is that?' It's kind of like the guy's come out of nowhere. And [right tackle Jeff] Wills' development is going to be big. Is he putting himself in a position where he can be a starter?
Some people would look to the secondary and say look what you guys did there last year, but it sounds like you're almost more excited about the D-line and the linebackers.
TB: I really am. The front seven for us has got a chance to be really good. I think we'll be good on the back end, too. We're just a little thin. A kid like [cornerback] Michael Carter coming in, Michael's going to have to play as a freshman. And we've got some other guys. Today it's so hard to find defensive linemen, and particularly the young inside guys, Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey, they've got a chance to be really good. And then you've got [Eric] Small and [Garrett] Brown. So we've got four inside guys. And then I think we'll be better on the edge. D.L. Wilhite's a kid who redshirted last year and has got really good speed. And with [Cedric] McKinley, [Derek] Onwuachi, we've got some guys there.
The spring gives you a chance to find some playmakers, too, especially with Weber limited and Eric Decker playing baseball.
TB: Eric Decker's going to be ready to play. What I'm concerned about is somebody else being ready. That's how you've got to look at it, a positive thing and not a negative thing.
You mentioned last year's team was significantly improved. Is that the same goal for 2009?
TB: This year, we want to make the same improvement, but it's a tougher step, a much tougher step, particularly with a much tougher schedule.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt|
|Coach Tim Brewster "couldn't be more pleased with the progress" the Golden Gophers are making on defense.|
Tim Brewster came to Minnesota talking Big Ten championships, Rose Bowl trips and restoring the program's long-forgotten place among the nation's elite. Though the Gophers set records for losses (11) and yards allowed (6,224) in his first season as coach, Brewster hasn't changed his tune at all.
He's a coach, a historian and an eternal optimist who remains convinced Minnesota is on the brink of special things even though the program has gone 41 years without a share of the Big Ten title and 47 years without a Rose Bowl appearance. It's an attitude that hooks top recruits but could soon wear on the Gophers faithful without better results on the field. Brewster rattles off Minnesota's accomplishments -- six national championships, 18 Big Ten championships -- like they happened yesterday, and as I found out, he doesn't like suggestions that his current players might be disconnected from the program's glory days.
You've always been such an optimistic guy. Did you ever feel the need to taper off last year when things were going so badly?
Tim Brewster: That's who I am. I wake up every day and I'm very blessed to be the head football coach at Minnesota and to have this opportunity. I feel really good about the day and what it presents, so yeah, that's who I am.
Was is hard to keep that up last year? You obviously came in right away and talked about the Rose Bowl and the program's past.
TB: Our goal each and every day we come to work at Minnesota is to win a Big Ten championship and go to the Rose Bowl. That has not changed. That'll be the goal as long as I'm the head football coach and we certainly believe that can and will happen as long as we're taking the proper steps toward making it happen. We have great confidence that we are taking those steps. It will happen eventually.
What type of effect does your optimism have on the players? Do they feed off it?
TB: Every football team takes on the characteristics of their head coach, and I want to be a very strong-willed, confident guy that our players know that they can depend upon in times of trouble, in good times, bad times, whatever times they may be. I want to be somebody our players can definitely lean on and who can lead them. Without question, I'd like to think that our team is starting to really understand the type of confidence that I'd like for them to play with. I even use that term swagger. We want to play with a swagger.
Did the bar need to be raised at Minnesota? The team had several winning seasons and had gone to bowls, but the Rose Bowl was the first thing you talked about.
TB: I just know that it's my expectation of the program. The bar was set well before I got here. Six national championships. There's not very many schools in the country that have won six national championships. That's something tangible that we have that a lot of schools don't. Eighteen Big Ten championships. It's been a while since we've connected with that type of success, but we certainly feel it's well within our reach for the future.
For the players who weren't born during that period, have you hammered home those points, connecting them with the past, because they don't have that reference point of, 'Hey, Minnesota went to the Rose Bowl and won a Big Ten title?'
TB: That's not a true statement at all. That's a very uninformed statement by you. Our players know we've won six national championships, our players know we've won 18 Big Ten championships. They know the greatness that was the University of Minnesota. Each and every day, we want to study history and make sure our players do understand and respond and know what it means to be a Minnesota Golden Gopher.
I was trying to get at the fact that none of them were born during that time. How much do you bring that up to them?
TB: There's a lot of people that need to be educated about the tradition and the history at the University of Minnesota. And it's a great one. It truly is one of the greatest traditions in college football. So it's my obligation as the head football coach to be certain that that message is conveyed.
What's been the biggest surprise for you so far on defense? Who has stepped up on that side after so many problems last year?
TB: I couldn't be more pleased with the progress we're making on the defensive side. We've added some really good players and we've taken the players that were already in the program and gotten them bigger and stronger. [Defensive coordinator] Ted Roof has come in and really been a valuable asset to us. I'm really pleased what he has brought to our kids, a really fundamental approach to playing great defense. And our kids are really buying into it. But it's a players' game, without question, and the reason why we'll be an improved defense is that we've improved our athleticism. We've gotten faster on the defensive side of the ball.
The junior college guys, Tramaine [Brock] and [Traye] Simmons and the others, how are they coming along on defense?
TB: They're coming along great. Tramaine's really had a great camp and Cedrick McKinley's playing well. Marcus Sherels has just been absolutely outstanding at corner. Traye Simmons is another JC guy, Simoni Lawrence, Rex Sharpe, these are all guys that are really doing a nice job, and particularly up front. Eric Small is a kid who last season played at 260 and now he's playing over 300 pounds. We feel really good about the change in our defense.
Sherels obviously has a legacy there with his brother [Mike] playing. What's been the biggest difference in his game this year?
TB: He's got tremendous quickness. He's made a very seamless transition from wide receiver to corner. A very smart kid, diligent in his work ethic. He's an extremely committed football player, and when you match that with his athleticism, the end result is you've got a really good player.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Today I'll be taking a closer look at Minnesota, which tries to rebound from a school-record 11 losses as it enters Tim Brewster's second season as coach. Here are three questions facing the Gophers as they enter the fall:
1. Who are these guys?
Minnesota's roster has a decidedly different look to it, and that's not a bad thing after last year. Recognizing the need for immediate upgrades on defense, Brewster brought in several junior-college players who will start or get major playing time. Keep an eye on Tramaine Brock, a hard-hitting safety who won a starting job this spring and should set the tone in the secondary. He'll get help from Traye Simmons at cornerback. The line also will have a JC flavor with Cedric McKinley at defensive end and Simoni Lawrence and linebacker. Minnesota will lean on a strong crop of incoming freshmen, including cornerback/return man Troy Stoudermire, and wide receivers Brandon Green, Xzavian Brandon and Brodrick Smith.
2. How will the offensive line fare after losing three starters?
As the rest of the team prepares to take the next step with greater knowledge of the system, the line is, in a sense, starting over. This was one of few Gophers units that excelled last season, allowing a Big Ten-low 13 sacks. The loss of standouts Tony Brinkhaus and Steve Shidell will sting, and Minnesota needs Jeff Tow-Arnett to make a smooth transition from left guard to center. Ryan Wynn, Ryan Orton and Chris Bunders lead a group of promising young linemen, but they can't afford growing pains. Getting the line right is the biggest priority for a team sensing a breakthrough this fall.
3. How will new coordinator Ted Roof reshape the nation's worst defense?
Roof loves tough challenges, but unlike the Duke team he coached last year, Minnesota has the talent to make a big jump this fall. The veteran defensive coach stressed the basics upon his arrival, and Minnesota tackled a ton this spring after not doing it enough last fall. Roof doesn't consider himself a panacea, but he's another reminder that last season is in the past. There's no doubt the junior-college transfers will help. Roof's challenge will be facilitating improvement from returning starters like defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg and linebackers Steve Davis and Deon Hightower.