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March 22, 2010

Minnesota looks to build momentum in spring

Minnesota has gone to consecutive bowl games, but the program seems to lack momentum as it enters its fourth season under coach Tim Brewster.

To energize the fan base and continue to fill TCF Bank Stadium, which was christened last season, Brewster needs to strengthen the offensive line, find a dynamic quarterback and bolster the defense. If those things happen, Brewster finally may score the signature victory that has been missing from his Minnesota resume while pushing the program to that elusive next level.

The fiery Brewster has done a good job improving the talent, but the coaching staff has been a revolving door. It was more of the same this offseason with a new offensive coordinator (Jeff Horton) and receivers coach (Steve Watson) coming aboard. That lack of continuity has hurt.

Here's a look at the Golden Gophers as they head into spring drills.

MINNESOTA AT-A-GLANCE
QB Adam Weber had a nice 2008 campaign, but he was not as effective last season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Tim Brewster
Last season: 6-7 overall, 3-5 in the Big Ten. Lost 14-13 to Iowa State in the Insight Bowl.
Spring dates: March 23-April 24.
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (10): T Dominic Alford, RB Duane Bennett, G Chris Bunders, C D.J. Burris, G Matt Carufel, FB Jon Hoese, WR Da'Jon McKnight, WR Troy Stoudermire, QB Adam Weber, T Jeff Wills.
Defense (2): FS Kim Royston; SS Kyle Theret.
Special teams (1): K Eric Ellestad.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Credit veteran coordinator Kevin Cosgrove for building a solid defense that ranked sixth in the Big Ten (369.2 ypg) last season. But more big plays are needed, as the Gophers finished 10th in sacks and in tackles for loss. Special teams look strong. Eric Ellestad hit 13-of-17 field-goal attempts in 2009, while Troy Stoudermire and sophomore WR Bryant Allen are solid return men. There is ample speed and athletic ability on the roster, thanks to Brewster's recruiting.

HELP IS NEEDED

Horton is Brewster's third offensive coordinator in three years. Jedd Fisch left to become the Seattle Seahawks' quarterbacks coach. Chief among Horton's marching orders is improving a moribund ground game. In 2009, Minnesota had the worst rushing attack in the Big Ten (99.5 ypg), notching a league-low 13 rushing touchdowns. That's a far cry from the ground-pounding offenses of former coach Glen Mason. Everyone who started a game on the offensive line is back, but the unit was horrendous in 2009. Will it benefit from experience? Stay tuned. The defense must be overhauled, as the entire front seven has to be replaced.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

CB Michael Carter: Minnesota needs a shutdown cornerback. Can Carter, a former four-star recruit, claim a starting spot? Carter, a sophomore, needs to bulk up (he's 5 feet 11 and 164 pounds), but he has the requisite speed and athletic ability to be a star. He attended the same high school - Pompano Beach (Fla.) Ely - as former Gophers star safety Tyrone Carter, who happens to be his cousin.

QB MarQueis Gray: It's vital that Gray, a 6-4, 224-pound sophomore, picks up enough of the offense to challenge Adam Weber for the starting job. Perhaps the multi-talented Gray can force Horton to use a two-quarterback system, or even win the job.

WR Da'Jon McKnight: He needs to help pick up the slack left by the departure of star WR Eric Decker. McKnight, a junior, failed to make a catch in the first eight games. But after Decker got hurt, McKnight caught 17 passes for 311 yards. McKnight, who only played one year of prep football, is a big target (6-3/210) in the red zone who also can make plays in space.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

QB Adam Weber: Weber, a senior, needs to improve after a subpar 2009. Weber completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 2,761 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight picks in 2008 en route to earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. Last fall, Weber, hit only 52 percent of his passes for 2,582 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

THE BUZZ

There is lots of work to do on both sides of the ball, especially for an offense that finished last in the Big Ten in yards, points per game and touchdowns. Horton arrives with lots of ideas after three years with the Detroit Lions. He won't overhaul the pro-style scheme that Fisch installed, but Horton must find a productive quarterback. Cosgrove is the first defensive coordinator to return for a second season under Brewster, so that continuity could help a defense that's returning only two starters. Still, myriad questions must be answered.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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