Monday, May 24, 2010

Pre-Season Preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

2009 Record: 6-7 (3-5 in Big Ten)
2009 Bowl: Insight Bowl (lost to Iowa State 14-13)
Final 2009 AP Ranking: N/A
Head Coach: Tim Brewster (14-24 in 3 years at Minnesota)
Non-Conference Schedule: at Middle Tennessee State (9/2), South Dakota (9/11), USC (9/18), Northern Illinois (9/25)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 20.9 points per game (last in Big Ten, 100th in Nation)
Rushing Yards/Game: 99 (last in Big Ten, 111th in Nation)
Passing Yards/Game: 207 (8th in Big Ten)
Total Yards/Game: 306 (last in Big Ten, 110th in Nation) 

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 23.8 points per game (5th in Big Ten)
Rushing Yards/Game: 151 (7th in Big Ten)
Passing Yards/Game: 217 (5th in Big Ten)
Total Yards/Game: 369 (6th in Big Ten)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: -0.08 per game (8th in Big Ten)
Penalties: 52 yards per game (9th in Big Ten)

Returning Starters
Offense: 9
Defense: 2
Kicker/Punter: 1

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: QB Adam Weber, Sr (191 of 367 for 2582 yds, 13 TD, 15 INT, 198 passing ypg)
Rushing: RB Duane Bennett, Jr (98 carries for 376 yds, 6 TD, 3.8 ypc, 28 ypg)
Rushing: RB DeLeon Eskridge, Jr (74 carries for 294 yds, 3 TD, 3.9 ypc, 24 ypg)
Receiving: WR Da'Jon McKnight, Jr (17 rec, 311 yds, 0 TD, 1.4 rec/game)
Receiving: WR Troy Stoudermire, Jr (26 rec, 306 yds, 2 TD, 2.0 rec/game)
Tackles: S Kim Royston, Sr (86)
Sacks: DE D.L. Wilhite, Soph (3)
Interceptions: DB Kyle Theret, Sr (3); indefinitely suspended

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Lindy's: Not Ranked
Mark Schlabach: Not Ranked
Rivals: Not Ranked
Scout: Not Ranked
Sports Illustrated: Not Ranked
Athlon Sports: #75

2010 Pre-Season Big Ten Prediction:
Athlon Sports: #11

Bowl Prediction:
Athlon Sports: None

In 2007 Minnesota went 1-11 in Tim Brewster's first season. Since that time Minnesota has made it to two straight bowl games (finished 7-6 in 2008 and 6-7 in 2009). Minnesota will face an uphill battle this year as they return 9 offensive starters from what was statistically the worst offense in the Big Ten and only 2 from a middle of the pack Big Ten defense. We caught up with the Minnesota blog Fringe Bowl Team and found out what they thought about this upcoming year of Minnesota football.

What are the major strengths and biggest weaknesses of the team?

This may sound a bit funny for a team that lost 9 starters on D, but the major strengths of the 2010 Gophers are up the middle on defense (DTs, MLB and Safeties). JR DTs Brandon Kirksey & Jewhan Edwards are new starters but have played extensively over the last two years, subbing in for the starters over the last two years with little to no drop-off in performance. Edwards is a huge (6'2" 330+) clog in the middle with a surprising first step and Kirksey is a physical, tough defender with very good speed. JR Gary Tinsley takes over for former Gopher Lee Campbell at middle linebacker and pending the result of his legal troubles (Coach Brewster told ESPN's Adam Rittenberg that he expects Tinsley back in the mix this fall and he's not suspended), could be the vocal leader of the defense. Finally, the SR safeties Kim Royston & Kyle Theret are the only full-time starters that return from 2009 and they'll provide the leadership this young defense needs. Roytson is expected back for opening day after breaking his leg in spring practice and Theret is also expected back after facing DUI related suspension.

For weakness, I would say WRs and QB play, although the entire offense is seen as a big question mark. Specifically, someone other than JR Da'Jon McKnight will have to step up and make some plays at WR to replace the production of arguably the best Gopher WR of all time, Eric Decker. McKnight has the best big play ability of the returning starters and the other two players with starting experience - JR's Troy Stoudermire & Brandon Green - have been inconsistent throughout their careers. QB is the biggest enigma of all and the subject of much debate over the off-season. Not so much who will be the starter -- SR and 3 year starter Adam Weber had the job on lock over highly recruited SO MarQueis Gray -- but which Weber will show up: the Adam Weber that set Gopher passing records as a freshmen in '07 and was named second team All Big Ten in '08 or the Adam Weber that looked completely lost and threw more INTs than TDs in '09? Weber is on his 4th OC in 5 years at the U and really needs to step up his final season in order to steady the offense and return some production to a unit that was among the Big Ten's worst in 2009. Weber will need some more help and consistency from his offensive line and the running game too.

Looking at the schedule who will be the first major test and why?

Not to be cliche, but the first game of the year at Middle Tennessee St. could be a dog fight for the Gophers. 

1) It's a Thursday night game, which are always tricky to prepare for. 
2) It's against an opponent that won 10 games in 2009 and returns one of the most electrifying offensive talents in the country, QB Dwight Dasher. 
3) This Gopher defense is arguably as talented, fast and athletic as any I've seen in over a decade, but they're young and will need to come together fast to stop an explosive MTSU offense. 
4) MTSU was a deceptively good defense team in 2009 and returns most of their starters on D. 

How the Gophers respond in what will likely be a hornet's nest down in Mufreesboro will tell us a lot about what to expect from the team in 2010.

What team on the schedule do you fear the most?

Fear? I guess I don't fear Ohio State or USC because most people expect the Gophers to lose those games, myself included. The team I fear the most is Purdue: the Boilermakers were a very good offensive team in 2009 and return a boatload of offensive talent in 2010. The unknown is what I feat the most, and not knowing how good QB Robert Marve or RB Al-Terek McBurse (starting in place of Ralph Bolden, out with an ACL tear) will be makes me uneasy, especially since the game is in West Lafayette - a place where the Gophers traditionally haven't played well.

Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?

It's probably LT Dom Alford. Given the amount of new starters on the D this year, most fans and media are paying extra attention to the potential breakout stars on that side of the ball while overlooking some of the maligned players on offense. Alford is a curious case: worked his way into the starting lineup at RT his freshmen year, switched over to LT in 2008 and has been injured for most of the last two years. When he's healthy -- which by all accounts from the spring, he is -- Alford is arguably the Gophers best linemen in pass protection.

Who is the best offensive player on the team?

It's a toss up between Weber and McKnight. Weber and McKnight showcased what they can do when everything is firing on all cylinders last Halloween against Michigan St. In what was a career night for both, Weber torched the Spartans for 416 yards and 5 TDs, while McKnight reeled in 4 catches for 98 yards. McKnight also put in a strong performance during the Insight Bowl with 7 catches and 124 yards. Another to keep an eye out for is TE Eric Lair.

Who is the most impactful defensive player on the team?

If impact is what you're looking for, DE D.L. Wilhite is probably the guy. Wilhite played sparingly last season as a RS Freshmen but was arguably the team's best pass rusher. If Wilhite can make the leap from situational player to full-time starter and bring pressure from the outside, he'll single handedly change the make-up of the defense.

What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach it's full capability?

Without a doubt, Weber and to a lesser extent the WRs not named McKnight. I'm more bullish than most when looking at the Gopher defense, so I really think the season rests on Weber's right arm: this team will go as far as he can take them.

Who is the top offensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

There are a trio of true freshmen running backs (Lamonte Edwards, Devon Wright & Donnell Kirkwood) that will all compete with the returning starters Duane Bennett & Deleon Eskridge for playing time this fall. I'd expect two of the incoming RBs will get significant PT. Another to watch is JUCO TE Tiree Eure - a player that was almost interchangeable with current starter Eric Lair this spring.

Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

Look for RS Freshman safety Kenny Watkins to make some noise. Brewster expects returning starter Royston back by opening night, but if he's not fully recovered or the other starting safety (Theret) is suspended, Watkins will slide into the starting role. Watkins turned heads this spring with his aggressive play and speed from the strong safety spot.

Gut feeling on the teams final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?

Honestly, this is one of the more difficult seasons to handicap in recent memory. There are so many unknowns with the defense, QB, WR, running game and offensive line that they Gophers could literally finish anywhere from 4-8 to 9-3. My gut tells me that some teams on the schedule won't be as tough as they were in 2009 (i.e. PSU & Iowa) while others will be a lot tougher (UW & MSU). In the end, I'm predicting a 6-6/7-5 record and a return to a bowl game will make for a successful season.

Next Up: Troy Trojans

2010 Previews
Big East- Cincinnati Bearcats, Pittsburgh Panthers, West Virginia Mountaineers
Big Ten- Michigan WolverinesNorthwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers
Conference USA- Houston Cougars
MAC- Temple Owls


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