Big Ten: Marcus Sherels
Both the offense and defense had some highs and lows, as the offense started fast before slowing down considerably, while the defense allowed an early touchdown before turning up the heat with physical play in the second half.
Not surprisingly, the quarterbacks took center stage. Three-year starter Adam Weber got most of the work with the first-team offense and led an opening scoring drive, thanks in large part to a 56-yard completion to speedster Troy Stoudermire. But the senior completed less than half his passes (8 of 20) in the game. Backup MarQueis Gray accounted for the game's lone touchdown pass, a 38-yard strike to Hayo Carpenter, but he also threw an interception. Third-stringer Moses Alipate completed 2 of 4 passes for 14 yards.
Head coach Tim Brewster will name a starter in the coming days, and all signs point to Weber, who stepped up his game this spring after a subpar junior season. I'm sure a portion of Gophers fans will be upset to see Weber back at the controls, but his struggles last season weren't all his fault. Remember that he was recruited to play in the spread and had to adjust to a dramatically different and overly complex offense in 2009. He'll be better this season, especially if the offensive line steps up.
Minnesota's running game showed some life early as top backs Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge racked up 97 of their combined 106 rushing yards in the first half. Bennett averaged 6.1 yards a carry, though the backs struggled to find running room late in the game.
The defense played without any returning starters from 2009 but still showed some good things, especially at linebacker. Mike Rallis, a converted safety, recorded two sacks and three tackles for loss. Sam Maresh had two tackles for loss and a pass breakup, and Keanon Cooper picked off a Gray pass.
Other Gophers nuggets:
- Kenny Watkins and Christyn Lewis filled the starting safety spots in place of the injured Kim Royston and the suspended Kyle Theret, and both players turned in solid performances. Lewis and Watkins combined for seven tackles and two pass breakups.
- Minnesota must replace both of its starting defensive tackles, but Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey earned high marks from reporters who attended the game.
- The biggest hole for the defense could be the cornerback spot, as it must replace Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels. Michael Carter recorded two pass breakups in the spring game and Ryan Collado added three tackles and a pass breakup. Kyle Henderson, a transfer from Minnesota-Mankato, was one of the spring game stars with four tackles and three pass breakups. Still, Minnesota needs to develop more depth there.
- Kicker Eric Ellestad turned in a solid performance, going 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts with a long of 50 yards.
The spring features a competition at quarterback between Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray and plenty of opportunities for young, highly recruited players to step up.
Here's a look at Minnesota's strong point and weak point heading into spring ball, which kicks off March 23.
Strongest position: Safety
- Key returnees: Senior Kyle Theret (73 tackles, 3 INTs, 7 passes defended); senior Kim Royston (86 passes, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 7 passes defended); senior Ryan Collado (34 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 pass defended).
- Key departures: None
- The skinny: Minnesota boasts the Big Ten's top safety tandem in Theret and Royston. The two finished the 2009 season on a high note in the Insight Bowl. Theret had two interceptions and a 40-yard reception on a fake punt, while Royston recorded a career-high 15 tackles, including a forced fumble. Collado provides depth behind them. Although the Gophers lose both starting cornerbacks (Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels), the veteran leadership at safety combined with some exciting young players should fill in the gaps.
- Key returnees: Tackles Dom Alford, Jeff Wills and Ryan Wynn; guards Matt Carufel, Chris Bunders and Trey Davis; and center D.J. Burris.
- Key departures: Tackle Matt Stommes, center Jeff Tow-Arnett
- The skinny: It would be easy to spotlight linebacker or defensive tackle, positions where the Gophers lose multiple starters from 2009. But until the offensive line starts stepping up, this team is going to struggle. Minnesota has ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing yards in each of the past two seasons, which is simply unacceptable for a program steeped in running tradition. The Gophers have experience, but whether these linemen are good enough or tough enough to execute a new scheme remains to be seen.
Here's a look:
Offensive line: The line hasn't been great the last two seasons, and Illinois loses standout Jon Asamoah and center Eric Block. Illinois looks strong at running back in 2010, but someone needs to create rushing lanes.
Safety: The Illini defense hasn't been the same since the departures of safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison following the 2007 season. Ron Zook could really use a safety or two who could step in and contribute right away against the run and in coverage.
Defensive end: The Hoosiers lose two multiyear starters at end: Jammie Kirlew, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, and Greg Middleton, who led the nation in sacks in 2007. Indiana's pass rush will suffer unless it builds depth at end and throughout the line.
Secondary: Indiana loses starting safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk as well as its top cornerback, Ray Fisher. Expect the Hoosiers to go very heavy with defensive back recruits as they try to shore up an area that has been problematic during the last decade.
Offensive line: The situation on the line certainly is better than it was a year ago, but the departure of talented left tackle Rodger Saffold creates a void. Indiana is the type of team that always could use more depth up front so the drop-off between starters and backups isn't so dramatic.
Offensive line: Iowa loses four linemen who started most or all of its games last year, including All-Big Ten performers Bryan Bulaga and Dace Richardson. The Hawkeyes can't expect freshmen to come in and start right away up front, but they need some insurance if injuries crop up.
Linebacker: Standouts Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds depart, and while Iowa has some guys ready to step in, it can always use depth in the defensive midsection. The Hawkeyes defensive line should sizzle in 2010, but they need sure tacklers at linebacker, too.
Secondary: There's no mystery here, as the Wolverines really struggled with breakdowns in the back four and lose standout cornerback Donovan Warren to the NFL draft. Michigan needs to bolster its talent level at both cornerback and safety to have improved results in 2010.
Linebacker: The Wolverines linebackers struggled in 2009, and there are opportunities for young players to step in here and contribute. Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton are back, but it's obvious this is another area Michigan must upgrade this coming season.
Specialists: Michigan loses both of its starting specialists, including All-Big Ten punter Zoltan Mesko, a Ray Guy Award finalist. This is always an area where a strong true freshman can step in and contribute immediately.
Trenches: Line play was a weakness for the Spartans in 2009, and they'll be looking to upgrade on both sides of the ball. They lose top pass rusher Trevor Anderson as well as left tackle Rocco Cironi, center Joel Nitchman and guard Brendon Moss on the offensive line.
Secondary: This unit turned out to be a major disappointment, considering the preseason expectations. Michigan State loses safety Danny Fortener and corners Ross Weaver and Jeremy Ware, and there should be ample opportunities for freshmen to step in and play.
Linebacker: Probably not a critical need, but Michigan State needs to start preparing for life after Greg Jones. The Spartans also lose Adam Decker and Brandon Denson from the 2009 team, and Eric Gordon will depart with Jones after 2010.
Cornerback: The Gophers lose both of their starters, Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels, and will be looking to build depth behind Michael Carter in 2010. I'm very excited about what Minnesota returns at safety, but the situation at corner seems a bit unsettled.
Offensive line: Minnesota will stick with the pro-style offense no matter who becomes its next coordinator, but for the system to truly click, the Gophers really need to upgrade their line. The team returns quite a few linemen for 2010, but it'll look for improved depth up front.
Running back: After finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing each of the last two seasons, Minnesota certainly will look to get better here. Kevin Whaley's departure creates a spot for a newcomer to compete with Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge for carries.
Secondary: The Wildcats lose three multiyear starters in the secondary, including All-Big Ten honorees Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. They'll need to build depth around safety Brian Peters and corner Jordan Mabin to avoid a major drop-off.
Defensive line: Corey Wootton's departure leaves NU without a proven pass rusher who can command double teams. The Wildcats also will look to build depth at defensive tackle after losing Adam Hahn and Marshall Thomas.
Safety: This is one of few spots where Ohio State loses two long-time contributors in Kurt Coleman, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and Anderson Russell. Though Jermale Hines played a lot in 2009, the Buckeyes want to build depth around him.
Wide receiver: If the Buckeyes' offense builds off of its Rose Bowl performance, the wideouts figure to be more involved. Ohio State should be fine for 2010 with DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, but it could lose both after the season and needs to start grooming replacements. These recruits also could help the return game, where Ohio State loses Ray Small and Lamaar Thomas.
Quarterback: Two-year starter Daryll Clark is gone and Pat Devlin transferred following the 2008 season, creating a wide open competition at quarterback heading into 2010. Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin will compete, but Penn State always wants others in the mix there.
Linebacker: Penn State rarely has trouble reloading here, but it loses all three starters, including back-to-back first-team All-Big Ten selection Navorro Bowman. The Lions will look to build depth and identify an early contributor or two for the 2010 season.
Tight end/wideout: The Lions lose both Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler, so expect them to add a tight end or two in the incoming class. Quarless was a major part of the passing attack and Shuler hauled in two touchdowns, so Penn State won't neglect this position.
Secondary: A no-brainer here, as Purdue loses all four starters in the secondary, which has ranked in the upper half of the league against the pass. The Boilers likely need a newcomer or two to contribute right away in 2010.
Linebacker: Jason Werner hopes to return for a sixth year, but Purdue can't take any chances with a position that has struggled a bit the last two seasons. Danny Hope likes his young linebackers (Antwon Higgs, Dwayne Beckford), but he's looking for more.
Wide receiver/tight end: Purdue can never have enough pass receivers, and Hope will look to build around All-Big Ten performer Keith Smith in 2010. The Boilers lose No. 2 wideout Aaron Valentin, and Smith and tight end Kyle Adams depart after 2010.
Defensive line: All-Big Ten defensive end O'Brien Schofield departs, and the Badgers will be pretty young up front in 2010. It's important that Wisconsin builds depth behind players like J.J. Watt and Jordan Kohout.
Tight end: Lance Kendricks certainly eased concerns about this spot in the Champs Sports Bowl, but Wisconsin still loses All-Big Ten selection Garrett Graham as well as reserve Mickey Turner. No team in the Big Ten features the tight end spot as much as Wisconsin, so it'll be important to find a few recruits.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Happy hump day.
- It looks like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz has Joe Paterno's number, Pat Harty writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Ferentz is a realist about his team's injury status, Andrew Logue writes in the Des Moines Register. Iowa could upset Penn State again, Dave Curtis writes in The Sporting News.
- Paterno doesn't care about the revenge factor for Penn State, Cory Giger writes in The Altoona Mirror. He's more concerned about his linebackers, Jeff Rice writes in the Centre Daily Times.
- After poor performances on defense, particularly in the secondary, Michigan State has shuffled the depth chart, Joe Rexrode writes in the Lansing State Journal. Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio doesn't think much of quarterback Kirk Cousins' critics, Shannon Shelton writes in the Detroit Free Press.
- Jim Tressel is a better coach than Pete Carroll because he doesn't lose to bad teams, CBSSports.com's Gregg Doyel writes. Ohio State still has a Big Ten title to play for, and possibly a shot at the national championship game, Ken Gordon writes in The Columbus Dispatch. SI.com's Andy Staples has it right by not punishing Ohio State in this week's rankings.
- Does John Clay really want to be Wisconsin's starting running back? He needs to decide, Michael Hunt writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Minnesota will have starting cornerback Marcus Sherels back on the field Saturday at Northwestern, Kent Youngblood writes in the Star Tribune.
- Every Illinois fan remembers fondly what happened the last time the team went to Columbus, Shannon Ryan writes in the Chicago Tribune.
- Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott prepares for the blitz against Notre Dame, Mike Carmin writes in The (Lafayette) Journal and Courier.
- Kelvin Grady has a new outlook on life after switching sports at Michigan, Angelique Chengelis writes in The Detroit News.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Big Ten's newest stadium, which definitely lives up to the hype.
Minnesota finally has a real home stadium, but whether the friendly surroundings pay off today remains to be seen. The Gophers face an enormous test in eighth-ranked California, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best at running back.
For the first time in my journalism career, I'm happy to provide a weather forecast for a Minnesota home game (instead of the standard room temperature joke at the Metrodome). It looks like a gorgeous day, with temperatures around 70 degrees at kickoff, working their way up to 77 during the fourth quarter.
A couple of personnel notes for Minnesota: cornerback Marcus Sherels (ankle) isn't expected to play, and Dom Alford will start at left tackle over Matt Stommes.
THREE KEYS FOR CALIFORNIA
1. Stay awake. Head coach Jeff Tedford hates hearing about how the early kickoff last year against Maryland doomed his team, which looked utterly lifeless in College Park. A strong start on offense, especially from quarterback Kevin Riley, would prove the Bears are ready this time and could take the crowd out of the game.
2. Find Eric Decker on every play. The Gophers senior wide receiver has been the team's only consistent offensive weapon so far. Talented Bears cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson likely will be assigned to Decker (the game's best matchup, in my opinion), but he could use some safety help against the Biletnikoff Award candidate.
3. Pressure quarterback Adam Weber. Cal ranks sixth nationally in sacks (4.5 spg), and the Gophers' offensive line is still adjusting to a brand-new system. Weber will make mistakes under pressure from time to time, so Cal should take an aggressive approach with defensive end Ernest Owusu and others.
THREE KEYS FOR MINNESOTA
1. Make Riley win the game. Minnesota's linebackers have been fabulous so far, but Best and Shane Vereen can take over a game with their big-play ability. The Gophers need to load up the box and force Riley to make tough throws. Riley has been extremely efficient this season, but Minnesota can't let Cal's running backs take over.
2. Diversify the offense. Decker can't beat a team like Cal by himself, and he'll need help from his fellow wideouts, tight end Nick Tow-Arnett and running backs Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. This needs to be the game where wideout Hayo Carpenter becomes a difference maker for the Gophers.
3. Make plays on special teams. The Gophers rank among the top 20 nationally in both kickoff and punt returns, and sophomore Troy Stoudermire can be a game-changer Saturday. Stoudermire should give Minnesota's offense good field position, and the Gophers need continued excellence from punter Dan Orseske and kicker Eric Ellestad.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Camps are cookin' around the Big Ten, and so are these links.
- Minnesota running back Duane Bennett is making up for lost time, Kent Youngblood writes in the Star Tribune. Gophers cornerback Marcus Sherels is also back at practice following surgery, Marcus Fuller writes in the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press.
- Linebacker Marell Evans leaves Michigan on good terms with the coaching staff, the Detroit Free Press' Mark Snyder writes in his blog. Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez didn't vote for his team in the Top 25 and knows national respect must be earned on the field, annarbor.com's Dave Birkett writes.
- Ohio State's depth chart has a risk-reward quality about it, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Andy Miller might not be as highly touted as Mike Adams, but he's got just as good a chance of winning the Buckeyes' starting left tackle spot, Ken Gordon writes in The Columbus Dispatch.
- Northwestern's veteran defense reminds coach Pat Fitzgerald of the unit he played on in 1995, Shannon Ryan writes in the Chicago Tribune.
- Purdue players got their wish to have names on the backs of their jerseys this fall, and they likely will be following two quarterbacks on the field, Mike Carmin writes in The (Lafayette) Journal and Courier.
- Sports Illustrated's preseason top 20 features only two Big Ten teams and just one in the top 10.
- Indiana safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk are healthy and hitting, Chris Korman writes in The (Bloomington) Herald-Times.
- Big games have been the Big Ten's bugaboo, Rivals.com's Tom Dienhart writes in his conference preview.
- David Gilreath hopes to spark Wisconsin's struggling kick-return unit, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
After a long weekend off, it's time to dive back into the Big Ten position rankings. The secondary units are up next.
The top two look absolutely stacked, and the top four or five all will be solid. Quarterback play should be much better in the Big Ten this fall, and the secondaries will need to elevate their play.
1. Iowa -- Three starters return from a unit that helped Iowa lead the Big Ten in takeaways (32) and allow the fewest passing touchdowns (9) in 2008. Junior Amari Spievey is the league's best cover corner, and he'll be joined by safety Tyler Sash, who shared the league lead in interceptions with teammate Pat Angerer last fall. Bradley Fletcher will be missed and depth is a mini concern, but the back four will anchor Iowa's D.
2. Northwestern -- The Wildcats boast the Big Ten's deepest secondary and possibly the league's best. I covered a string of woeful Northwestern secondaries earlier this decade, and it's a major testament to assistants Mike Hankwitz and Jerry Brown that the unit has come this far. All four starters return, led by safety Brad Phillips and corner Sherrick McManis. Northwestern can go at least nine deep and boasts capable reserves like Brian Peters.
3. Ohio State -- It's a bit of a mixed bag for the Buckeyes, who return the Big Ten's top safety tandem but look thin at cornerback. Safeties Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell both will contend for All-Big Ten honors after solid junior seasons. Ohio State loses Thorpe Award winner Malcolm Jenkins and hopes Chimdi Chekwa can fill the void. Several young players will get a chance to shine this fall, including Travis Howard and Ohrian Johnson.
4. Michigan State -- All-Big Ten safety Otis Wiley departs, but there's a lot to like about the Spartans secondary. Perhaps only Northwestern boasts more depth than Michigan State, which can go at least eight deep in the secondary. Corners Chris L. Rucker and Ross Weaver should have big seasons, and safety Trenton Robinson was the story of the spring and will earn major playing time.
5. Purdue -- Pop quiz: Which team led the Big Ten in pass defense last fall? It might surprise some to know Purdue topped the chart (183.2 ypg). A poor run defense contributed to the numbers, but the Boilers still look very strong in the back four entering 2009. Safety Torri Williams received a sixth year of eligibility during the offseason, and he'll join returning starters David Pender, Brandon King and Dwight Mclean.
6. Minnesota -- Minnesota led the Big Ten in takeaways for much of last season, and the secondary was the biggest reason why. Playmaking cornerback Traye Simmons leads a unit that returns three starters and could be deeper than it was in 2008. Senior corner Marcus Sherels and junior safety Kyle Theret have loads of experience, and Simmons is thrilled about the arrival of Wisconsin transfer Kim Royston at safety.
7. Wisconsin -- Easily the toughest unit to rank. The Badgers have the playmakers to be a top 4 secondary this fall. Cornerback Niles Brinkley recorded four interceptions last season, backup safety Shane Carter had a league-leading seven picks in 2007 and safety Jay Valai might be the Big Ten's hardest hitter. But consistency and depth are major concerns for Wisconsin. A lot depends on how cornerback Aaron Henry returns from knee problems.
8. Michigan -- Junior cornerback Donovan Warren could have a huge year or a really quiet one. See, Warren is easily the team's most experienced defensive back, and for that reason, opponents might try to avoid him and attack the Wolverines' unproven players. Michigan boasts a lot of young talent in the secondary -- corner Boubacar Cissoko, safety Troy Woolfolk, safety Vladimir Emilien -- and those players need to grow up fast.
9. Penn State -- This is easily the weakest unit on a team with Big Ten title aspirations. Penn State loses all four starters from a secondary that got exposed late in a loss to Iowa and early in a Rose Bowl beating against USC. The Lions need cornerback A.J. Wallace to straighten out his academic situation before Sept. 5. Safety Drew Astorino is ready to lead, but Penn State must identify capable pieces around him.
10. Illinois -- As expected, Vontae Davis bolted to the NFL a year early, leaving Illinois without a lock-down cornerback. The safeties also struggled at times last year, which creates plenty of questions heading into the fall. Illinois would certainly benefit from having a healthy Donsay Hardeman at safety, while cornerback Tavon Wilson showed some promising signs during spring ball.
11. Indiana -- It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Indiana finished much higher in my end-of-year rankings, but there are too many uncertainties entering camp. How will safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk respond from serious knee injuries? Has Ray Fisher successfully transitioned from wide receiver to cornerback? Will Florida transfer Jerimy Finch finally emerge as an impact player? The answers could determine whether Indiana survives on defense this fall.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Thanks to several of you for reminding me about special teams, a subject I had planned to tackle during spring ball but got bogged down with too many other things.
Here's a quick look at where each Big Ten team stands on special teams heading into the summer. A more comprehensive position-by-position ranking will come your way a little closer to the season.
Michigan State -- The Spartans return Lou Groza Award candidate Brett Swenson along with punter Aaron Bates, who averaged 42 yards per boot last season. Punt return man Otis Wiley is gone, but Mark Dell should step in nicely and the Spartans boast some exciting, young talent in Keshawn Martin, Jairus Jones and others.
Ohio State -- The Buckeyes don't have as many special teams certainties as most years, but history doesn't lie. Ohio State will always be strong on special teams under head coach Jim Tressel. Punter is a question mark, but Aaron Pettrey should be fine on field goals. Ray Small is one of the nation's best punt return men, and the kickoff return unit should be much more dynamic than it was last year.
Illinois -- The Illini return both of their starting specialists, and kicker Matt Eller looks like a keeper after connecting on 8 of 10 field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards last year. Illinois' return game also should be much improved as Florida transfer Jarred Fayson enters a mix that includes Arrelious Benn.
Penn State -- Jeremy Boone is one of the league's best punters, and odds are Penn State will be fine on special teams by the end of the season. But Kevin Kelly is a big loss at kicker, and the Nittany Lions will miss the dynamic Derrick Williams on punt and kickoff returns. Penn State will look to Chaz Powell to provide a spark on returns.
Iowa -- Ryan Donahue has established himself as a solid Big Ten punter, and the Hawkeyes have two options at kicker in Daniel Murray, the hero of the Penn State victory, and Trent Mossbrucker. The big loss comes at punt returner, as Andy Brodell was one of the best around. Iowa also might need a primary kick returner if Jewel Hampton moves into a starting spot at running back.
Minnesota -- The Gophers have the Big Ten's most dangerous return man in Troy Stoudermire, who averaged 25.8 yards on kickoff returns and racked up more than 1,000 return yards last year. Marcus Sherels is a very solid punt return man, but the Gophers must replace both of their starting specialists. Hopes are high for heralded freshman punter Dan Orseske.
Michigan -- Bad seasons usually equal a lot of work for the punter, and Zoltan Mesko came through in a big way for Michigan last fall. The Big Ten's best punter is back, and Michigan also boasts return men Martavious Odoms and Boubacar Cissoko. The situation at kicker looks a bit messy, and Rich Rodriguez will need some of his incoming freshmen to contribute right away.
Wisconsin -- Kicker Phillip Welch comes off a stellar freshman season in which he connected on 17 of 20 field goal attempts. Punter Brad Nortman also comes back, and David Gilreath remains a dangerous man on punt and kickoff returns.
A LITTLE SHAKY
Purdue -- From field goals to punt coverage, Purdue had its adventures on special teams last fall. But if Carson Wiggs continues to perform well on makeable kicks, the Boilers should be fine. Purdue loses Desmond Tardy, who led the Big Ten in kickoff returns (28.8 yards per return), as well as Kory Sheets. Hopes are high for Aaron Valentin on kickoff returns after the wideout averaged 25.7 yards per runback in 2008.
Indiana -- Austin Starr didn't have the senior season he envisioned, but the All-Big Ten kicker most certainly will be missed in Bloomington. Indiana also loses Marcus Thigpen, who made his mark as a kickoff returner. Punter Chris Hagerup looks like a keeper but comes off knee surgery, and the Hoosiers are looking for help on returns.
Northwestern -- The Wildcats need to reach a point where special teams no longer costs them games. It happened again in the Alamo Bowl, a game Northwestern should have won. Punter Stefan Demos did a lot of nice things last season but can't afford critical mistakes like the one he made in the bowl (kicking to Jeremy Maclin). The Wildcats bring in a scholarship kicker in Jeff Budzien, and they need some help on returns.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
For the last decade or so, Minnesota has had the luxury of being able to pile up early wins and still reach bowl games despite late-season slides.
Since 1998, the Gophers own a 46-29 record in games played before Oct. 20. Soft nonconference schedules certainly helped, and Minnesota typically started well in Big Ten play.
After Oct. 20, the picture isn't so pretty. Minnesota has gone 23-36 in games played on Oct. 20 or later during the same time span. The trend certainly continued last season, as Minnesota started 7-1 before dropping its final five games.
Given the way the schedule is changing, the Gophers need to put a stop to this pattern right now.
The era of cupcake scheduling appears to be over at Minnesota, thanks to head coach Tim Brewster and athletic director Joel Maturi. Minnesota faces California and Air Force this season, USC in 2010 and 2011 and most likely Texas somewhere in the distant future.
"This year's schedule is unbelievably attractive," Maturi said last month at the Big Ten spring meetings. "And then we play Southern Cal. It's been very well received. Now if we go get our butts kicked, I don't know how well it would be received. But I do believe it's what we aspire to be. It helps our recruiting and hopefully, we'll rise to the occasion and play competitive football."
The good news is Minnesota has the type of team that should improve rather than regress during the course of the 2009 season.
There's a ton of talent on offense, particularly at wide receiver and quarterback. The running back position should also be better with the return of Duane Bennett. But there also is a significant scheme change under new coordinator Jedd Fisch. The offensive line will need time to settle in, and that's why Minnesota could have some trouble against Air Force, Cal and Northwestern.
The defense also has a new coordinator in Kevin Cosgrove, its third in as many years. Minnesota boasts playmakers in the secondary (Traye Simmons, Marcus Sherels) and good experience up front (Garrett Brown, Eric Small, Cedric McKinley), but an adjustment period is also expected here.
Minnesota's season will hinge on its ability to adjust -- to schemes, to coaches, to new personnel groups and most importantly, to the ebb and flow of the season. A slow start is possible, and if so, the Gophers must show greater mental toughness than they have in past seasons. Their conference road schedule is brutal -- Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa and Northwestern -- but there are opportunities to do damage at home.
Finishing strong will be paramount for a program that hasn't done so much in recent years. If Minnesota wants to take the next step, it needs to be playing its best football in November.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota will open spring practice Tuesday with a new offensive coordinator (Jedd Fisch), a new run game coordinator (Tim Davis) and a new offensive philosophy (pro-style sets, power run, physical play).
"People think I'm crazy, but I think it's a tremendous thing for our football team that Adam Weber is not going to get contact reps," head coach Tim Brewster said.
You're probably nodding your head about the crazy part. But let him explain.
"MarQueis Gray is going to get the contact reps," Brewster said. "MarQueis Gray is going to get forced development this spring. That's a great thing for our football team."
Gray, a heralded recruit from Indianapolis, enters spring ball as the team's No. 2 quarterback despite not taking a snap in a college game. An issue with Gray's ACT scores put his college career on pause last fall, but the 6-4, 215-pound freshman will be back on the field Tuesday.
Brewster said he wouldn't trade Weber for any quarterback in the country, but don't expect Gray to sit on the sidelines the next two seasons. He's going to get on the field some way, whether it's as a quarterback, wide receiver or even running back.
"MarQueis has got to put himself in a position where he can take control of our offense and execute our offense, and we don't miss a beat," Brewster said. "Because he's one play away from being our starting quarterback. He's an extremely gifted, talented football player."
Decker's absence with the Gophers baseball team opens up opportunities for other playmakers to develop. Minnesota relied on Decker at times too much last fall, and Brewster is looking for young players like Brandon Green, Xzavian Brandon and Ben Kuznia to step up.
"I didn't think we had enough dynamic playmakers [in 2008]," Brewster said.
Here are some other notes from Brewster's pre-spring news conference.
- Former defensive lineman Matt Stommes will enter the spring as Minnesota's starting left tackle, as junior Dom Alford shifts from left tackle to left guard. Stommes emerged after Tim Davis became offensive line coach in November and started at right tackle in the Insight Bowl. The senior is listed at 6-7 and 284, but Brewster said he's closer to 300 pounds.
"He's our best athlete in the offensive line," Brewster said. "The pro scouts that have come in and looked at his prototype ... he's got outstanding measurables. We really feel good about him."
- Linebacker Sam Maresh will be on the practice field Tuesday, which is an amazing accomplishment after he underwent open heart surgery last summer and discovered a non-cancerous growth in his calf this winter. Brewster isn't sure how much Maresh will do but said the freshman went through a rigorous conditioning session Monday morning with his teammates. "There's a chance that he can play [this season]," Brewster said. "I don't want to rush him back. I want to make sure he's 100 percent confident in the calf."
- Starting cornerback Marcus Sherels will miss most of spring drills following offseason shoulder surgery. He should be fine for preseason camp. Offensive lineman Jeff Tow-Arnett also will miss spring ball after undergoing knee surgery in November. Brewster hopes to have him back for the summer.
- Sophomore running back Duane Bennett, who started last season before suffering a torn ACL, likely will be held out of contact drills this spring. Same goes for Weber, who will participate in everything else as he grasps the new offense.
- Expect heralded 2008 recruit Keanon Cooper to play a significant role this fall at one of the outside linebacker spots. Cooper is still listed as a free safety but boasts speed and decent size (6-1, 220). Brewster said Cooper ran a 4.41 in the 40-yard dash. Linebacker Simoni Lawrence, who Brewster said is on the cusp of becoming one of the Big Ten's top defenders, ran a 4.43 in the 40.
- Brewster expects transfers Matt Carufel (Notre Dame) and Kim Royston (Wisconsin) to play major roles right away. Carufel projects as the starting right guard, while Royston will be in the mix at safety. Brewster said Kyle Theret, who recorded three interceptions and 11 pass deflections last fall, will be pushed to keep his starting job. There could be a hole at the other safety spot, as Tramaine Brock has left the team because of academic issues. Brewster didn't say much about Brock, only that he's waiting to see how everything plays out.
- The team hopes to move into TCF Bank Stadium by July 1 and conduct several preseason practices on the field before the Sept. 12 opener against Air Force. "It's something that's been needed at the U. for a long time," Brewster said. "Fortunately, the dream, it's happened."
- Minnesota's schedule gets tougher in 2009, as it faces Cal and Air Force and adds defending Big Ten co-champ Penn State and Michigan State to the conference slate. The Gophers will not play Indiana or Michigan, and in 2010 they begin a series with USC. "I was a big part of making the schedule a lot stronger," Brewster said. "It does a whole lot more good than it does harm. ... I don't want to play USC every week, but I want to play a schedule our fans are really excited about."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Today's position superlatives finish with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Check out the blog next week for the final four teams: Illinois, Northwestern, Ohio State and Purdue.
Minnesota returns nine starters on offense, including the entire line, and could make major strides if the holdovers adjust to a new scheme and style. There are a few more questions on the defensive side, particularly up front. But overall, Minnesota doesn't have many glaring weaknesses heading into spring ball.
Strongest position -- Defensive back
Key returnees: Senior cornerback Traye Simmons, junior safety Kyle Theret, senior cornerback Marcus Sherels, senior safety Tramaine Brock (expected to rejoin team after leaving school due to academic reasons), junior cornerback Ryan Collado
Key losses: None
The skinny: As long as Brock comes back this summer -- head coach Tim Brewster expects him to return -- Minnesota will bring back every member of a playmaking secondary. The four starters combined for 10 interceptions, 48 pass deflections, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries last fall. Though the Gophers were exposed late in the season, the defensive backs, particularly Simmons, showed the ability to change games. A talented wide receiving corps led by Eric Decker almost got the nod here, and Minnesota should be decent at linebacker.
Weakest position -- Defensive end
Key returnees: Senior Derrick Onwuachi, senior Cedric McKinley
Key departures: Willie VanDeSteeg (53 tackles, 19 TFLs, 10.5 sacks)
The skinny: VanDeSteeg was Minnesota's pass rush at times last fall, winning a game at Illinois almost single-handedly in the fourth quarter. He'll definitely be missed, and Minnesota needs to identify a standout end to complement two solid tackles in seniors Eric Small and Garrett Brown. Minnesota tied for the league lead in sacks last fall (34), but VanDeSteeg was a major reason why. Other potential weaknesses include running back and offensive line.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Minnesota needed a quick fix last year and got it in the form of seven junior college transfers. The strategy paid off as the Golden Gophers improved their win total by six and received solid production from players like cornerback Traye Simmons and safety Tramaine Brock.
But head coach Tim Brewster will build his program with top high school talent, and his 2009 class will provide a better barometer of what to expect from the recruiting whiz.
Despite returning the nucleus from a bowl team, Minnesota has gaps to fill going forward, especially as it returns to its roots as a power run team. Offensive line depth was a major problem this season, and Brewster will try to add several big pieces up front. The defensive line loses All-Big Ten performer Willie VanDeSteeg, but Minnesota returns several rising seniors who should fill out the depth chart this fall.
Another spot that needs a few more bodies is the secondary, which will lose Simmons, Brock and cornerback Marcus Sherels after the 2009 season. Expect Brewster to load up on defensive backs or players who have the athleticism to eventually shift to cornerback or safety.
Minnesota's offense returns virtually intact, and quarterback MarQueis Gray, who is now eligible, likely will succeed Adam Weber as the starter in 2011. But wide receiver and running back remain areas that could use an immediate contributor. Wideout Eric Decker won't be there forever, and Minnesota needs to plan ahead to replace his remarkable production.
The Gophers also lose their starting punter and starting kicker, so expect them to add a specialist on National Signing Day.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
After a lengthy hiatus, What to Watch is back as we take a look at the first three Big Ten bowl games.
- Champs Sports -- Wisconsin vs. Florida State, Dec. 27
- Valero Alamo -- Northwestern vs. Missouri, Dec. 29
- Insight -- Minnesota vs. Kansas, Dec. 31
Here are some things to keep an eye on as you watch the games (in order).
1. Wisconsin's power run game -- The Champs Sports Bowl will feature strength vs. speed, and Wisconsin needs to overpower a swift Florida State defense with 473 pounds of running back. P.J. Hill and John Clay form a bruising rushing tandem, and Wisconsin will have to control the clock and wear down the Seminoles. The Hill-Clay attack seemed to surge in the final five games.
2. Wisconsin linebacker Culmer St. Jean -- He appeared in every game this fall and racked up 16 tackles, but the Badgers sophomore linebacker takes on a much bigger role against the 'Noles. St. Jean will start at middle linebacker as Jaevery McFadden moves to the weak side to replace the injured Jonathan Casillas. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said St. Jean has been peaking in practice heading into the bowl.
3. Wisconsin wide receiver David Gilreath -- The sophomore could be an X-factor in this game. He took on a bigger role in the rushing attack late in the season, but Wisconsin has to find better ways to use his speed. It's baffling that Wisconsin ranks last nationally in kickoff returns despite having Gilreath as the return man. If offensive coordinator Paul Chryst finds creative ways to use Gilreath, Wisconsin could surprise Florida State.
4. The Badgers' offensive line -- Sure, they're big, and at times they've played well as a unit, but few things have gone according to plan for the Wisconsin offense this season. The next task is a daunting one -- finding a way to block Florida State defensive end Everette Brown. Sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi receives the undesirable task of trying to keep Brown from digesting quarterback Dustin Sherer.
5. C.J. Bacher and Northwestern's passing attack -- Northwestern was able to win nine games without summoning superhuman performances from Bacher, who delivered a couple of them last season. But to get win No. 10, Bacher will need to be at his best. Missouri's high-powered offense probably can't be held down for 60 minutes, but the Tigers' pass defense is miserable. Bacher can put up big numbers with a veteran receiving corps, but he must avoid interceptions, his bugaboo, and make more plays in the red zone.
6. Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton -- There's some talk that Northwestern's all-conference end could enter the NFL draft after a stellar junior season. He can showcase his ability on a national stage against Chase Daniel and Missouri. Northwestern will have to generate a strong pass rush against Daniel, and Wootton leads a defense that led the Big Ten in sacks (33) this fall.
7. Northwestern running back Tyrell Sutton -- Northwestern likely will get its best all-around player back for the Alamo Bowl, but how he responds from left wrist surgery is a big question. Sutton, who typically carries the ball in his right arm, will wear a cast for the game and expects to be fine. The Wildcats struggled to generate a consistent run game without him and need one to control the clock against Missouri.
8. Minnesota's offensive line -- Head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged his team got beat up down the stretch, and no unit suffered more than the offensive line. Brewster brought in veteran line coach Tim Davis after the regular season, and it will be interesting to see what impact Davis has on a young group. The Gophers need to reduce the pressure on quarterback Adam Weber and find a way to run the ball against Kansas.
9. Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker -- The first-team All-Big Ten selection underwent left knee surgery after the regular season but is expected to be fine for the Insight Bowl. Minnesota seemed to lose its consistency on offense after Decker sprained his ankle Nov. 1, and Weber undoubtedly will be thrilled to have his top target healthy again. If Weber and Deck regain their rhythm and keep Todd Reesing and the Kansas offense off the field, Minnesota should have a shot in this one.
10. Gophers secondary and forcing turnovers -- Minnesota built its 7-1 start on amazingly opportunistic defense, particularly from the secondary. The Gophers' four starting defensive backs -- Traye Simmons, Tramaine Brock, Marcus Sherels and Kyle Theret -- have combined for 10 interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. The group also owns a whopping 47 pass deflections. Minnesota's secondary has to force mistakes from Reesing, who has thrown 12 interceptions this season.
The first eight games of the 2008 season showed how far Minnesota has come. The last four games showed how far the Gophers still need to go.
Minnesota responded well from the darkest season in team history, which featured only one victory and new lows for defensive futility. The Gophers surged to a 7-1 start behind opportunistic defense, intelligent quarterback play and discipline on both sides of the ball.
Head coach Tim Brewster not only blended several key junior college players into the mix but saw improvement from holdovers like quarterback Adam Weber, defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg and cornerback Marcus Sherels. First-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof oversaw a unit that led the Big Ten with 30 takeaways, boasting seven players with multiple interceptions or forced fumbles. Weber and wideout Eric Decker formed the league's most consistent passing combination and Minnesota won three of its first four road games.
The closing stretch exposed some weaknesses Minnesota had masked for the first two months. A shaky offensive line and a nonexistent rushing attack hamstrung the unit, and turnovers and defensive breakdowns began to pile up. The Gophers imploded against archrival Iowa, suffering their worst loss (55-0) in Big Ten play.
Still, a 7-5 record exceeded most expectations for Minnesota, and a young core raises hope for 2009 and beyond.
Offensive MVP -- Quarterback Adam Weber
Like the rest of the team, Weber had his struggles down the stretch, but he made several important strides this fall. The sophomore ranked third in the Big Ten in passing average (215.4 ypg) and threw only two interceptions in the first seven games. He helped Minnesota to a road win against Illinois just six days after undergoing knee surgery. Decker also deserves a mention here after leading the Big Ten with 76 receptions.
Defensive MVP -- Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg
VanDeSteeg showed that with two healthy wrists, he's one of the Big Ten's most ferocious pass rushers. The senior earned first-team all-conference honors from the media after leading Minnesota with 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. He was named National Defensive Player of the Week after recording three sacks and a forced fumble that led to a touchdown against Illinois.
Turning point -- Oct. 11 at Illinois
The Gophers came in at 5-1 but hadn't registered a signature win. They were searching for their first Big Ten road victory since Nov. 11, 2006. Facing Juice Williams and the high-powered Illinois offense, Minnesota forced three turnovers and received a strong performance from running back DeLeon Eskridge (124 rush yards, 2 TDs). The Gophers became bowl eligible and earned a national ranking.
Minnesota heads to the Insight Bowl as a heavy underdog against Kansas, but an upset of the Jayhawks would take the sting off a rough closing stretch. The future definitely looks bright for the Gophers, who return several standouts on both sides of the ball and open their new stadium on Sept. 12, 2009. If new offensive line coach Tim Davis can improve the play up front and some holes are filled on the defensive line, Minnesota should take another step forward next fall.