NCF Nation: Eric Small
WHO TO WATCH: Adam Weber. The Minnesota junior quarterback has taken a step back in his third year as the starter, but as he showed on Halloween night against Michigan State, he still can light it up. Weber also can struggle mightily, as he showed in shutout losses to Iowa and Penn State and a near shutout at Ohio State. Golden Gophers head coach Tim Brewster will open up the quarterback competition in spring practice, but Weber can help his cause with a strong showing against a vulnerable Iowa State defense that ranks 95th nationally against the pass (245 ypg). Minnesota is still searching for someone to replace Eric Decker's production, but Weber has some decent options in tight end Nick Tow-Arnett and wide receiver Troy Stoudermire. If Weber struggles, don't be surprised if Minnesota goes to MarQueis Gray.
WHAT TO WATCH: Minnesota's linebackers against Iowa State's rushing attack. Seniors Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence have carried the Gophers' defense this fall, combining for 284 tackles. Iowa State isn't much of a passing team and wants to get Alexander Robinson going. Robinson, ranked 29th nationally in rushing average, is a Minneaoplis native who nearly considered transferring to Minnesota after Gene Chizik bolted from Ames. If Minnesota can plug the middle with defensive tackles Garrett Brown and Eric Small, the linebackers should be in position to slow down Robinson and mobile quarterback Austen Arnaud.
WHY TO WATCH: Brewster is safe and will receive a contract extension in the near future, but this remains a pivotal game for the Minnesota program. A victory assures Minnesota of a winning season and could bring some life back to a fan base that seems unhappy with the current direction. The Gophers haven't won a bowl game since 2004 and lost the Insight Bowl in 2006 and 2008. A loss will brand the 2009 season as a disappointment and increase the pressure on Brewster and his assistants this offseason. It's also a nice regional game between two upper Midwest teams that haven't played since 1997.
PREDICTION: Neither of these teams is very good, and both offenses are inconsistent at best. Expect a low-scoring affair, and the team that makes the fewest number of major mistakes wins. Iowa State will have more fans in Tempe and could be more motivated than Minnesota, which has gone to the Insight Bowl in three of the past four years. The Gophers offense has been too inconsistent for my liking, and Iowa State finds a way to win, 17-14.
Michigan State players who line up across from Eric Small on Saturday night might think the Minnesota defensive tackle is taking the Halloween thing a little too far.
|Josh Holmberg /Icon SMI|
|Eric Small said he doesn't need an excuse to wear fake fangs.|
Small has made a special mouthpiece for himself, complete with fangs, which he wears during games.
"I’ve tried showing it [to opponents], but I don’t know how many guys have seen it yet," he said.
Small will wear the fangs against the Spartans, which fits perfectly with the Halloween theme at TCF Bank Stadium.
Then again, he'll wear fangs on Sunday, too. And Monday. And Tuesday. And Wednesday. And so on.
In fact, Small has been wearing fangs pretty much every day for the last two and a half years. He wears them to classes, to social activities, anywhere he goes.
"It’s just kind of my style, my attitude, something I wanted to do, and I’m finally doing it," he said. "I like wearing fangs. It’s who I am. I have them in pretty much everywhere I go, so when they’re not in, I just don’t feel right."
Figuring out Small's inspiration for the fangs isn't easy.
He's not really into werewolves or vampires. He isn't trying to copy a celebrity. He's a big heavy metal music fan -- Rob Zombie, Mudvayne and the Swedish group Sonic Syndicate are among his favorites -- but he doesn't see too many people wearing fangs at concerts.
And the strangest part? Small seems like a pretty normal guy.
“It sounds weird, but I don’t do it for anyone else," said the 6-2, 306-pound senior. "I don’t put them in, like, 'Who can I show these to?' I just wear them and I go about my daily business just because I like the feeling of having them in. It's become so natural for me now."
He might not be looking for attention, but he still gets plenty of it, even from classmates.
"I’ll be talking to them and their eyes immediately go to my mouth and their face is just like, ‘Whoa, who is this guy? What is he doing?’" Small said. "It’s not like I’ve said anything wrong. It’s just that they see this and they’re so shocked. Some people that don’t know me, they get scared, with the fangs and the long hair.
"A lot of people think it’s cool, some people think it’s scary, but it’s just what I do."
The fangs haven't really caught on in the Gophers locker room. Fellow defensive tackle Garrett Brown owned a pair for a while but no longer wears them, much to Small's disappointment.
Still, Small probably won't be the only one a little long in the tooth on Halloween night.
"My mom was joking around about maybe wearing a pair for the game," he said, "so we’ll see if she ends up doing that."
Now that would be awesome.
Not surprisingly, Small is a big Halloween fan, but his get-ups aren't as wild as you'd think. He has gone as Joe Dirt and Hulk Hogan in the past and is thinking about being wrestler Triple H this year.
"My costumes really don’t go too far into the scary," he said. "I enjoy the haunted houses and all that stuff, but the fangs, I don’t incorporate those."
Small, who has recorded three sacks and a forced fumble this year, hopes to continue playing football at the next level. If not, he might pursue a career in exercise science, possibly becoming a strength coach.
Would he wear the fangs to a job interview?
"Depends on the job, I guess," he said. "If I was applying to be a bouncer or a security guard for a metal band, then yeah, I’d wear 'em. But if I’m going to be working a 9-to-5, I don’t think so."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
CHICAGO -- Minnesota defensive tackle Garrett Brown isn't the type to back away from change.
He grew up playing hockey and lacrosse, spending 10 years on the ice and eight on the lax field. When Brown started high school in Fairfield, Conn., he seemed intent on pursuing one of those sports in college.
|Jamie Sabau/Getty Images|
|Garrett Brown is playing for his fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons.|
"That definitely changed quickly once I found out what a cheeseburger and weights were," Brown said.
Brown went through a major growth spurt between his freshman and sophomore years, sprouting four inches and adding 50 pounds. He entered high school as a 230-pound freshman but checked in around 280 as a sophomore.
"I became a D-lineman really quickly," he said.
Brown didn't start playing football until his sophomore year but took little time to adjust. He immediately earned a starting job on the varsity squad and played both ways as a left tackle and a defensive tackle.
Though he didn't put down his hockey skates and continued to compete as a center and a defenseman, his focus gradually shifted more toward the gridiron.
"I've always been a contact sport kind of guy," Brown said. "This is as contact as you get, unless it's rugby. So I immediately was drawn to the game. Football's definitely my sport now."
Brown's keen ability to acclimate has been tested at Minnesota, where last fall he turned in a strong season with 34 tackles, seven stops for loss, three sacks, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound senior will be playing for his fourth defensive coordinator in as many years as Big Ten veteran Kevin Cosgrove takes over in Minneapolis this season.
The Gophers' defense made strides last year under Ted Roof, improving 39 spots in the national rankings after setting team records for futility in 2007. But Roof left for Auburn in January and head coach Tim Brewster brought in Cosgrove, who had success at Wisconsin in the late 1990s.
The front four loses rush end Willie VanDeSteeg but returns an experienced tackles tandem in Brown and Eric Small.
"Coach Cosgrove has put a system in that is very, very simplified and lets us play fast," Brown said. "I'm used to that transition of, 'OK, now I have to learn a new system.' I think I learned the system in a week and a half."
There's no doubt Brown is a quick study, a trait that will come in handy as he goes through another transition after his playing days. He wants to become a sports agent and plans to enroll in law school when he's through on the field.
"I pick up most things pretty quickly," he said. "That's just the way I am."
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.