Big Ten: Matt Stommes

Minnesota had the Big Ten's most experienced roster in 2009, and there are quite a few holes to be filled this spring. The Gophers must replace nine starters on defense as well as All-Big Ten wide receiver Eric Decker, a team record-holder.

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.
Weakest position: Offensive line

  • 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.

It's game day at TCF Bank Stadium

September, 19, 2009
9/19/09
11:00
AM ET

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

The final seven Big Ten teams open preseason camp, including defending co-champs Penn State and Ohio State.

Here are three questions for the remaining seven squads during the next four weeks. If you missed Part I, check it out.

MICHIGAN

Camp opens: Monday

1. Will true freshman Tate Forcier create some early separation in the quarterback competition?

Forcier enters camp as the frontrunner after a solid spring, and he could further cement himself as the Wolverines' top quarterback in the coming weeks. He'll face some real competition now as junior Nick Sheridan returns from a broken leg and athletic freshman Denard Robinson joins the mix.

2. Who will step up alongside Brandon Graham on the defensive line?

Michigan brings back a potential All-American in Graham, who has 18.5 sacks the past two seasons. He'll need help up front, though, and the Wolverines need strong camps from Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and William Campbell.

3. How many true freshmen see the field this fall?

The Wolverines will be much more experienced at several positions, but head coach Rich Rodriguez brought in a strong recruiting class, and several freshmen should contribute immediately. Along with Forcier, Robinson and Campbell, running back Vincent Smith impressed this spring and hopes are high for safety Vladimir Emilien. Defensive end Craig Roh also could be one to watch.

MICHIGAN STATE

Camp opens: Monday

1. Will we see any separation at quarterback before Sept. 5?

Head coach Mark Dantonio isn't planning on it and fully intends to play both Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol during non-league play. The two signal-callers paced one another throughout spring ball, but there's a chance one man might be ready to take the job.

2. Can true freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper emerge as the top running backs?

None of Michigan State's older players really took charge in the spring, though Caulton Ray's emergence is intriguing. Many expect Michigan State's heralded recruits to emerge as potential starters by the end of training camp.

3. How will the secondary look by the end of camp?

Dantonio has a very good problem in the secondary -- loads of experience. Eight returning players have starting experience, and that doesn't include safety Trenton Robinson, the story of the spring on defense. The competition in the back four should be fun to watch.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Everything on offense starts with what happens up front, and line play will make or break the season for several Big Ten teams. The league loses a handful of standout linemen, including Rimington Trophy winner A.Q. Shipley, but several teams should reload nicely.

There's a lot to like about the top three, and I don't see any truly bad units in the league.

1. Iowa -- Shonn Greene was the nation's most dominant running back last year, but he had plenty of help. Iowa returns three starters and several key reserves from a line that propelled Greene to 13 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Junior Bryan Bulaga is the league's premier left tackle, while Kyle Calloway provides depth on the other side. The Hawkeyes boast more guard depth than any Big Ten team, a group that includes Dace Richardson, who has resurrected his career after a string of injuries.

2. Ohio State -- A major disappointment in 2008, Ohio State's line should be much improved thanks to experience, the addition of guard Justin Boren and some excellent recruiting. Boren brings a much-needed spark to the line and impressed just about everyone this spring. Center Mike Brewster is a year older, and senior Jim Cordle has shown impressive versatility in shifting to right tackle. The left tackle spot concerns me a bit, but Ohio State has recruited extremely well here.

3. Wisconsin -- The Badgers lose starting guards Andy Kemp and Kraig Urbik, but they always find a way to control the line of scrimmage and return several key pieces. Center John Moffitt and left tackle Gabe Carimi will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and Bill Nagy looks solid at one of the guard spots. If right tackle Josh Oglesby takes a step forward and lives up to his potential, Wisconsin will once again have one of the league's top lines.

4. Northwestern -- The team hopes its skill-position losses will be offset by a much better offensive line, which returns four starters. Northwestern did a good job of limiting sacks last year but should be much better at staying on blocks and buying time for athletic quarterback Mike Kafka. Left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett are both All-Big Ten candidates, and the Wildcats boast plenty of depth after recruiting extremely well to this position.

5. Michigan -- No group will make a bigger jump in Year 2 of the spread offense than the line, which returns four starters. Michigan should be very solid up the middle with center David Molk and guards Stephen Schilling and David Moosman. If the Marks (Ortmann and Huyge) hold up at the tackle spots, a run game led by Brandon Minor will surge. Despite several player departures, Michigan has recruited several standout linemen who will provide depth this fall.

6. Michigan State -- I like the Joels (Foreman and Nitchman), and left tackle Rocco Cironi returns from a shoulder injury, but this group still needs to prove itself. Despite Javon Ringer's success last fall, the line was just average and must fill several gaps. Hopes are high for J'Michael Deane and Jared McGaha after spring ball, and if those players make progress Michigan State will move up the list.

7. Penn State -- The line rivals the secondary as Penn State's biggest concern entering the fall. In addition to Shipley, the Lions lose tackle Gerald Cadogan and guard Rich Ohrnberger. Only one starter (right tackle Dennis Landolt) returns to the same position he occupied in 2008. Stefen Wisniewski will be fine at center, but Penn State needs tackle DeOn'tae Pannell and others to make a lot of progress during camp.

8. Illinois -- With so much talent at the skill positions, expectations will be high for the Illini line, which drew mixed reviews in 2008. Right guard Jon Asamoah will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and Illinois really likes young right tackle Jeff Allen. The team must fill a big hole at left tackle, though veteran Eric Block slides over from guard to center. This could end up being a very respectable group.

9. Minnesota -- Perhaps no offensive line in the Big Ten intrigues me more than Minnesota's, which is going through a major transition in both scheme and technique with assistant Tim Davis. The Gophers are returning to their roots as a power-run offense, but they'll have to adjust quickly to all the changes. Left tackle Matt Stommes could be a pro prospect if things fall right, and the mammoth Jeff Wills lines up on the other side of the line. Notre Dame transfer Matt Carufel joins the mix as a starting guard.

10. Purdue -- Injuries decimated the two-deep last year, and Purdue used seven different starting lineups up front. The Boilers are much healthier entering the fall and should be much better. Young players like right guard Ken Plue gained valuable experience last fall, and he rejoins veterans Jared Zwilling, Zach Reckman and Zach Jones. The big question is how quickly the group jells as Purdue wants to stress the run game more this fall.

11. Indiana -- Much like Purdue, injuries hit Indiana's line especially hard last fall. The Hoosiers have two proven veterans in left tackle Rodger Saffold and center Pete Saxon, both of whom have started for three seasons. If those two can lead the way and young players like Justin Pagan and Will Matte continue to develop, Indiana will be much improved here.

Minnesota spring wrap

May, 6, 2009
5/06/09
9:25
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2008 overall record: 7-6

2008 conference record: 3-5

Returning starters

Offense: 10; Defense: 8; Special teams: 0

Top returners

QB Adam Weber, WR Eric Decker, WR Ben Kuznia, DT Garrett Brown, LB Simoni Lawrence, CB Traye Simmons, CB Marcus Sherels, LB Lee Campbell

Key losses

TE Jack Simmons, DE Willie VanDeSteeg, LB Deon Hightower, P Justin Kucek

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: DeLeon Eskridge* (678 yds)
Passing: Adam Weber* (2,761 yds)
Receiving: Eric Decker* (1,074 yds)
Tackles: Lee Campbell* (80)
Sacks: Willie VanDeSteeg (10.5)
Interceptions: Traye Simmons* (4)

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5 at Syracuse
Sept. 12 Air Force
Sept. 19 California
Sept. 26 at Northwestern
Oct. 3 Wisconsin
Oct. 10 Purdue
Oct. 17 at Penn State
Oct. 24 at Ohio State
Oct. 31 Michigan State
Nov. 7 Illinois
Nov. 14 South Dakota State
Nov. 21 at Iowa

Spring answers

1. Gray day -- Heralded recruit MarQueis Gray finally got on the practice field for the Gophers this spring, and he lived up to the hype. Gray won't take the starting quarterback job away from junior Adam Weber, but he'll definitely be a part of the offense this fall. Minnesota likely will have some special packages for Gray, who completed 8 of 10 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

2. Defensive depth -- Minnesota loses only three starters from an improved defense, and new coordinator Kevin Cosgrove should have plenty of options this fall. Cedric McKinley appears ready to step into a primary pass-rushing role with Willie VanDeSteeg departing, and the defensive tackle spot will be a strength with co-captains Eric Small and Garrett Brown. Wisconsin transfer Kim Royston should see time at safety after a strong spring.

3. Troy's time -- After showing impressive speed on kickoff returns last fall, sophomore Troy Stoudermire will be asked to do much more for the Gophers in 2009. Stoudermire saw time as a wide receiver this spring and accounted for 274 all-purpose yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Head coach Tim Brewster is looking for playmakers, and Stoudermire fits the description.

Fall questions

1. Running back -- The Gophers will emphasize the power run in their new-look offense, but who carries the ball remains to be seen. Projected starter Duane Bennett was held out of contact this spring and both DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon missed time with injuries. Redshirt freshman Kevin Whaley showed some promise in the spring game with 63 rush yards and a touchdown, but the position remains a bit of a mystery.

2. Offensive line -- Not surprisingly, the offensive line endured some growing pains this spring as it adjusted to the new scheme being implemented by line coach Tim Davis and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. The Gophers return four starters up front, but several players have been moved around and two new tackles (Matt Stommes and Jeff Wills) likely will start the season.

3. Maresh musings -- Everyone in Minnesota is pulling for freshman linebacker Sam Maresh, who practiced this spring less than nine months after undergoing open-heart surgery. Maresh played a decent amount in the spring game and showed some potential. If he can avoid any further setbacks, he could be in the mix at linebacker this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Tim Brewster knows what an NFL player looks like. So do the scouts that visit Minnesota to evaluate Gophers players. 

When they look at a filled-out Matt Stommes, they like what they see. 

"He just has some great measurables," Brewster said. 

Stommes doesn't just pass the eye test. He aces it. The senior is 6-foot-7 and 296 pounds and has arms that measure 36 inches, the same as Denver Broncos first-round pick Ryan Clady.

He looks the part of an elite offensive tackle, and this spring he's getting the chance to prove himself.

Brewster surprised some when he announced that Stommes would open spring ball as Minnesota's starting left tackle. After all, this is a guy who played defensive line for two years and didn't log significant playing time along the offensive front until late last season.

But Stommes made a surprising start at right tackle in the Insight Bowl against Kansas, and as the Gophers change gears on offense to a pro-style, power run attack, he very much figures in the plans.

"It just sometimes happens like that," Brewster said, "where it takes a guy a little while to get to the right spot."

Or, in Stommes' case, grow into the right spot.

He came to Minnesota as a 240-pound defensive end and immediately added 35 pounds his first year. After appearing in nine games as a sophomore, Stommes was asked to switch to offense in preseason camp last summer.

"I had mixed feelings right away," he said. "Playing a bunch my sophomore year, I was like, 'Well, what's going to happen now? Am I going to play at all this year?' So it was a little more encouraging to get some playing time in at the end of [2008], just fed off of that in the offseason."

Stommes added another 20 pounds or so last year to top out at around 295 pounds, though he's leaner than most of the Gophers' linemen.

"When I was a kid, I always had the mentality to be active," said Stommes, who recorded 12 tackles (two for loss) in 2007. "And I give a lot of credit to our strength and conditioning staff. They're excellent. They know how to put the right weight on us."

The adjustment in technique from defense to offense took some time to pick up. Stommes went from reacting and moving forward to "sitting back, kind of in an awkward position." 

But there are benefits to playing offensive line, especially when you know the opponent's thought process. 

"It's a little different when you go up to the line knowing what you're going to do," Stommes said. "I try to use some things I learned on defense and try to apply them to offense, what they're trying to do to you on a 1-on-1 basis."

Brewster's hiring of new offensive line coach Tim Davis in late November marked the first step toward a fundamental transition of offensive philosophy. It was clear early on that Stommes factored heavily in Davis' vision for the group. 

Ryan Wynn had started every game at right tackle during the regular season, but he shifted to left guard as Stommes made his first career start. For spring ball, Dom Alford moved from left tackle to left guard, clearing a spot for Stommes.

"Obviously, it's nice to be running with the 1s," Stommes said, "but it's something each person wants to fight for."

Stommes is aware of his pro potential, but he doesn't dwell on it. 

"The coaches sometimes say something," he said. "They're just trying to get me motivated, which is a good thing. All that matters right now is running a good offense, running a good offensive line. That's what I'm focused on."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota offensive lineman Jason Meinke has decided to leave the program, head coach Tim Brewster announced Wednesday afternoon. 

Meinke, a 6-5, 278-pound offensive tackle, appeared in 17 games for Minnesota and started eight games last fall. The Gophers have restructured the offense behind new coordinator Jedd Fisch and line coach Tim Davis, and they opened spring practice Tuesday with Matt Stommes and junior college transfer Jeff Wills as the first-team tackles. 

"Jason has decided to leave the program to focus on academics and finish work on his degree here at the U.," Brewster said in a statement. "We thank Jason for his contributions and his hard work and wish him the best." 

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

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota kicked off spring ball this afternoon as the team held its first practice indoors at Rod Wallace Field. Players and coaches seemed amped up to get started, and here are some notes from the Gophers' first workout.

  • Linebacker Sam Maresh participated in his first practice as college player after battling back from open heart surgery last summer and a benign tumor in his left calf discovered this winter. Maresh worked with the third team and ran a bit gingerly, but he looks strong at 6-foot-3 and 235 and should improve throughout the spring. The first-team linebackers consisted of Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence, while Gary Tinsley and Ryan Grant alternated at the third spot. Freshman Keanon Cooper certainly brings speed to the group, but he's a bit undersized at outside 'backer.
  • The Gophers' four new coaches are fun to watch, particularly offensive line coach Tim Davis and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who employs some creative teaching techniques. The line will be a focal point throughout the spring as Minnesota transitions to a pro-style, power run offense. The first-team line consisted of left tackle Matt Stommes, left guard Dom Alford, center Trey Davis, right guard Matt Carufel and right tackle Jeff Wills.
  • Stommes, who made a meteoric rise to a starting tackle position after switching from defensive line, passes the eye test. He flat out looks like an athlete at left tackle. Wills, a junior college transfer, is huge but probably needs to improve his conditioning just a touch. Tim Davis rode him pretty hard for not finishing a drill.
  • The NCAA prevents teams from hitting during the first three practices, so starting quarterback Adam Weber (shoulder surgery) participated alongside backup MarQueis Gray, who looks every bit 6-foot-4 and showed good arm strength on several throws. Fisch spent time working with the quarterbacks on quick releases and at one point had them throw passes any way but overhand, to expand the types of throws (sidearm, flips) they need to make in games. "Turn that double play," Fisch told Weber and Gray while working on their releases.
  • Running back Duane Bennett, who comes off ACL surgery, ran with the first-team offense along with fullback Jon Hoese, wide receiver Brandon Green and others.
  • The best line of the practice came from defensive line coach Tim Cross after several players jumped early on a drill with the blocking sled. "You can't make a mistake being an assassin," Cross said. "One shot, one kill."
  • David Pittman, Green and Marcus Sherels (out for spring ball after shoulder surgery) worked as return men during a special-teams period.
  • Guard Ned Tavale definitely makes my early All-Big Ten hair team. Nice 'do.

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).

Given all the changes, it doesn't seem like an ideal time to have star wide receiver Eric Decker playing baseball or veteran quarterback Adam Weber held out of contact drills.

Think again.

"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."

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