- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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I've reviewed the Big Ten Network's preview of Minnesota. The crew of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith attended a Gophers scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium.
Here are some notes and observations:
Minnesota looked a lot more physical on both sides of the ball. The offense certainly is keeping it simple, but the line generated good push and the backs consistently had nice gains. A new-look defense definitely has further to go, but there were several nice hits in the scrimmage from defensive back Kyle Henderson and others. The BTN crew seemed to like the arrival of offensive coordinator Jeff Horton, who will really emphasize the power run game this fall. "For the first time, the schemes fit each other," DiNardo said.
Head coach Tim Brewster wanted to upgrade the schedule at Minnesota, and he has gotten his wish this year. "It’s the toughest schedule in the conference," DiNardo said. Games against Middle Tennessee, Northern Illinois and USC will challenge a young team early, but it also could help in the long run. "No one's going to give them a chance in a lot of these games," Griffith said. "This is an opportunity for the team to come together and rally."
Junior running back Duane Bennett had a very good day. He made several good cutbacks and bounced outside for a nice gain in the scrimmage. He capped a long drive by the first-team offense when he bounced off defensive back Shady Salamon and into the end zone. Although Minnesota will use several ball carriers, "Bennett’s the better back right now," DiNardo said.
DeLeon Eskridge also had some nice runs, although he also lost the ball following a jarring hit from safety Kyle Theret, who lays the wood and will be missed in Thursday night's opener. I also was impressed with true freshman Donnell Kirkwood, who spun off tackles well in the scrimmage. Fullback Jon Hoese had a big gain on fourth-and-short. Minnesota is certainly keeping things simple with the run game. "They have an inside zone, outside zone and they have a gap scheme." DiNardo said. "And that’s their run game."
It was tough to tell how much Minnesota's run game has improved, given all the new faces in the defensive front seven. DiNardo likes the first-team offensive line, especially guards Matt Carufel and Chris Bunders, and he thinks Ed Olson will be a future All-Big Ten player and possibly a future All-American.
Senior quarterback Adam Weber threw the ball well and looked comfortable in the offense. He made a perfect throw to Da'Jon McKnight on a deep route for a touchdown, putting the ball just beyond the defensive back's hands. He also threaded the ball to Troy Stoudermire for a first down in the scrimmage. Weber told the BTN crew how his injury issues last year changed his approach to getting treatment and preparing himself for the physical toll.
MarQueis Gray had a good scrimmage as the backup quarterback and as a starting wide receiver. He had a big gain on an end-around play, where he cut back before lowering his shoulder into a defender and gaining a few more yards. Great quote from Weber on Gray: "Very impressed with MarQueis this year. It's never easy when you’re a quarterback. He's a true quarterback. ... MarQueis is all about giving it up for his teammates. You could put him at left guard and he'd have a great time doing it." Brewster added that he'll get the ball in Gray's hands a lot this fall.
Henderson stood out on defense with several nice hits, and Ryan Grant and Kenny Watkins also showed some good physical play. The BTN crew identified defensive backs Christyn Lewis and James Manuel as newcomers to watch, and Griffith, echoing Brewster, sang the praises of defensive end Ra'Shede Hageman, a converted tight end.
It was interesting to hear Brewster tell BTN crew about "building a program from the foundation up." He talked about overhauling the roster after he arrived and taking time to put his plan in place. His coaching changes definitely have served as evidence, but it wasn't as if the cupboard was totally empty when he arrived. "We've had a lot of staff turnover at Minnesota," DiNardo said, "but the good news is I believe this is the best staff Tim Brewster's had since he's been here."