Michigan plays neither Minnesota nor Northwestern, so forgive the previews for being slightly less comprehensive.
Adam Weber has started the past two years, and he’ll be back once more. Coming in to back him up will be freshman (redshirt freshman? I’m not sure how it works when he was ineligible last year) MarQueis Gray, an Army All-American two years ago.
|Minnesota QBs Passing 2008|
|Minnesota QBs Rushing 2008|
Weber has become one of the conferences top quarterbacks (whether people want to admit it or not), and Gray should come in and provide much more talented depth. It’ll be interesting to see how Gray’s skills are used in the new non-spread Gophers offense.
DeLeon Eskridge ended up leading the Gophers in 2008, but the starter this season will probably be redshirt sophomore Duane Bennett, who redshirted last year after suffering a season-ending injury in the second game. Basically everyone is back for the Gophers, and as a bonus, they were all very young last year and should continue to develop. Fullback Jon Hoese looks to get more playing time this year with the new Minnesota offense.
|Minnesota RBs Rushing 2008|
|Jon Hoese (FB)||5||4||2||0.80|
|Minnesota RBs Receiving 2008|
As mentioned above, the Minnesota offense looks to move towards more of a power running game, so it’ll be interesting to see how that affects usage of the running backs. Hoese benefited in the bowl game, so there’ll probably be more of him this season (though the element of surprise that likely helped him in the bowl game will be gone).
Eric Decker returns for his senior season after skipping spring practice to play on the Gophers’ baseball team. Fellow whiteboy senior Ben Kuznia was Minnesota’s second-leading wideout last year. Sophomore Brandon Green will also get some reps, though Minnesota looks to get fewer multi-wideout sets on the field this year. At tight end, Nick Tow-Arnett will step up for the departed Jack Simmons.
|Minnesota Receivers Receiving 2008|
|Jack Simmons (TE)||36||331||2||9.19|
|Nick Tow-Arnett (TE)||10||211||1||21.10|
|Kevin Mannion (LB)||1||12||0||12.00|
|Ryan Collado (DB)||1||8||0||8.00|
|Lee Campbell (LB)||1||0||0||0.00|
|Minnesota Receivers Rushing 2008|
It appears as though Minnesota’s move away from the spread coincides with a loss of depth at wide receiver. The players at the top are pretty good (though Decker got nearly three times as much usage as the next player), but the ball will probably have to be shared a bit more this year, unless the Gophers want Decker to get killed in ’09.
The personnel along the Minnesota offensive line is something of a mystery, as there is a lot of moving around expected, especially with a new line coach in town. Center Ryan Wynn started every game at center last year, and he’ll return as a redshirt sophomore. Redshirt senior Matt Stommes, a former defensive lineman, has impressed, and is expected to be one of the starting tackles. Notre Dame transfer Matt Carufel should play one of the guard positions, leaving the other guard position and a tackle position left. Dominic Alford has played primarily tackle in his career, but some are calling for him to be one of the starting guards, with JuCo transfer Jeff Wills starting at tackle.
Minnesota’s line will be a mystery, what with a new offensive philosophy to go along with a fair amount of shaking up. Still, Minnesota returns more starts along the offensive line than any Big Ten school, and with a new focus on pounding the ball, they should be able to block the hell out of a lot of defenses they’ll play. However, returning starts != returning quality. The Gophers were last in the conference in rushing, and second-to-last in sacks allowed last year. Part of that is a product of the offense they ran, so look for improvement in both categories, regardless of whether the offensive line’s play actually improves.
The Gophers are moving to a more ground-oriented attack, which coincides pretty well with the shift in their roster composition – lots of returning depth on the offensive line, not much in the receiving corps. Adam Weber will probably go from an offensive catalyst to more of a game-manager, and the Gophers should be more consistent, if not necessarily better, offensively. Weber still has the ability (along with his main man Eric Decker) to win a game for his team, and a balanced Gophers attack could be pretty strong if it all comes together.
Seniors Garrett Brown and Eric Small return at the defensive tackle positions (there’s always a little humor in a 300-pounder being named “Small”), and look to bolster the rush defense for Minnesota. Fellow seniors Derrick Onwuacki and Cedric McKinley will likely be the defensive ends, after the Gophers lose star pass-rusher Willie VanDeSteeg. Sophomore Brandon Kirksey is listed on the Minnesota roster at DE, but with a 6-2, 281-lb frame, I espect him to play more defensive tackle, along with his enormous classmate Jewhan Edwards.
|Minnesota Defensive Line 2008|
The defensive tackle quality and depth is pretty good, but there’s seemingly nobody to play defensive end outside the starters. In fact, backup DE Anthony Jacobs is also listed at 280+, so behind the starters for Minnesota, don’t expect much of a pass rush on defense. The rush D should be pretty good with a lot of size, to go along with a very large and very experienced rotation at defensive tackle.
Deon Hightower, Steve Davis, and Kevin Mannion leave to Gophers’ linebacking corps after getting significant reps last year. However, there are a few guys ready to step into their roles. For one thing, senior Lee Campbeel will reprise a starting role from last year, when he moved from DE to MLB. Joining him will be Simoni Lawrence, who was actually the third-leading tackler among linebackers despite not being a regular starter. Nathan Triplett will try to hold off redshirt freshman Keanon Cooper for the final starting position.
|Minnesota Linebackers 2008|
Like defensive end, this appears to be a very senior-heavy position group (Minnesota fans must be shuddering when they think about how their team will perform in 2010). Steve Davis was one of the stronger players on the Gopher defense, so losing him will be a blow, but there are a number of experienced players (to go along with one inexperienced but talented player in Cooper) to step in, and the linebacker group should be a strong one.
The Gophers would be returning their entire starting backfield from last year, save for the flunking-out of safety Tramaine Brock. Seniors Marcus Sherels and Traye Simmons started every game at corner last year, and look to do the same this year, while junior Kyle Theret returns at one of the safety positions. The other safety spot is up in the air (and it wouldn’t be ridiculous to presume that there’s a possibility of Brock coming back to Minnesota), with redshirt junior Kim Royston, a Wisconsin transfer, and true sophomore Mike Rallis looking to be the front-runners.
|Minnesota Defensive Backs 2008|
Yet again, the Gophers have a lot of experience (and a fair number of seniors) at a position group. Though it bodes ill for 2010, it’s pretty good in 2009. The loss of Brock is a setback, but there are a number of Gopher players who have some game experience, and with returning starters (and upperclassmen) surrounding them, it shouldn’t be a huge liability to start a relatively fresh player.
Minnesota’s defense looks to be a strong one in terms of returning talent. The pass rush is the main area that could be a problem (with a new safety – who went through last year expecting to have Brock back in ’09 – might that mean pass defense issues?), and everything else is loaded with upperclassmen. The defense wasn’t particularly good overall last year, though, with a better scoring defense than yardage defense, aided by a bunch of turnovers. Since turnovers aren’t really replicable, except by pressuring the quarterback, an improved defense may not look like it at times in 2009.
Joel Monroe and Justin Kucek, last year’s specialists, are both gone. The Gophers will replace them with true freshman Dan Orseske at punter, junior Eric Ellestad at kicker.
|Minnesota Kicking 2008|
|Minnesota Punting 2008|
Both specialists are unknown quantities, as neither has played a single down in college. As inexperienced players, they aren’t likely to out-perform last year’s starters, especially since Ellestad was on the bench behind Monroe.
Minnesota is a pretty experienced team this year, and it might be a good thing that they rotate off Michigan’s schedule (though they didn’t give a historically bad Wolverine outfit much of a game in the Metrodome last year). The offense is something of an unknown quantity with new schemes, and uncertainty in the positions along the offensive line. Defensively, the Gophers should be better than last year, but they can’t rely on the turnover to give them a boost like they did through much of 2008. The Gophers’ roster seems to be composed completely of seniors and sophomores (with the occasional junior thrown in), so they’ll be strong in 2009, bad in 2010, and probably strong when they rotate back onto Michigan’s schedule for the 2011 season.