CHICAGO – Minnesota football coach Glen Mason is a man with a team that has a lot of questions surrounding it going into the 2006 season.
Who will carry the load at running back? How will the revamped offensive line fair? Will this finally be the year the defense makes an impact?
These are just a few.
Mason tackled these topics, among others Tuesday, during Big Ten Football Media Day.
“I’m really anxious for our upcoming season,” Mason said. “We’re losing very few players from our 2005 ball club, but the players we lost were pretty darn good players.
“The players and I are growing tired of answering the same questions about the players we lost because we return a lot of guys who played a significant amount of football for us last year.”
Much to Mason’s chagrin, it’s almost impossible to talk about the 2006 Gophers without talking about who’s no longer around, especially at running back.
Minnesota will have to replace junior Laurence Maroney (early departure) and sophomore Gary Russell (academics) if it hopes to keep its vaunted ground attack – third best in the nation last season with an average of 273.08 yards per game – rolling along.
The team has just one returning back with any legitimate experience, junior Amir Pinnix. And Pinnix has never been the featured back for any prolonged stretch and he also suffered a high ankle sprain in spring practice – a tricky injury.
“I’m looking for anybody,” Mason said about his backs. “We need more depth at that position.”
Junior college transfer Brylee Callender – a standout in the Gophers’ spring game – and redshirt freshman Jay Thomas could be the ones to provide much-needed depth, as Minnesota is typically a team that relies on more than one back.
Finding someone – anyone – to step up and carry the load will be crucial to Minnesota’s chances in 2006, according to ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit.
“I still think Minnesota has to go back to doing what they do best and that’s running the football,” Herbstreit said. “Can they find a tailback eventually to emerge to become the guy? Only time will tell.”
The future of the Gophers offensive line is also uncertain, as the Gophers are looking to replace All-American center Greg Eslinger and All-Big Ten First Team guard Mark Setterstrom.
A group of players, both inexperienced and playing out of position, will set out to accomplish this.
Minnesota has a tackle playing center (junior Tony Brinkhaus), a center (senior Tyson Swaggert) playing left guard and three redshirt freshmen vying for the right guard spot.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence (in the offensive line),” Mason said. “I’ve seen those guys play before.”
Mason pointed out that junior left tackle Joe Ainslie’s hand injury last season gave then-sophomore Steve Shidell valuable playing time and now the team has two experienced tackles, with Ainslie moving to the right side.
With all these questions surrounding the offense, one could almost forget the troubles the Gophers had on defense last season.
Minnesota again finished near the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring defense (ninth, allowing 34.1 points per game) and with new starters in all three areas of defense, including three spots on the defensive line, the team could struggle once more.
But Mason said he thinks the group will be solid this season, listing an experienced linebacking corps and sophomore defensive end Steve Davis as reasons for his optimism.
Favorable answers will have to be found in many areas for Minnesota to duplicate the generally above-.500 successes of Mason’s tenure, especially this season as the Gophers again have a tough slate.
Minnesota’s Big Ten schedule has the team traveling to Ohio State and Wisconsin and hosting Michigan, Penn State and Iowa.
And the Gophers have perhaps their toughest nonconference game
of Mason’s tenure Sept. 9 at California.
“I think California will be one of the better teams in the country and they go out there,” former Minnesota coach and current ESPN college football analyst Lou Holtz said. “But, you know, can they win the close games? That’s what it’s going to come down to.”
More on Russell
After his news conference Tuesday, Mason spoke with reporters, with most of the talk centering on Russell.
“Gary Russell – he’s not on this team,” Mason said. “He’s not going to be on our football team.”
He later added: “He’s not on my to-do list, I can tell you that.”
After being declared academically ineligible, Russell enrolled in junior college in the spring to get his grades up in the hopes of returning to the team. Now, however, it doesn’t appear that will happen.
Mason said he hadn’t talked to Russell recently and that he didn’t think it was fair to his current players that he had to “keep looking backwards” to talk about Russell. Mason did say Russell was “a good kid,” though.
“I think any time a young man that has an opportunity to play college football and it doesn’t work out, I think it’s a travesty,” Mason said. “I think it’s a failure and there’s a lot of responsibility that goes to the failure on both sides.”
© Copyright 2006 The Minnesota Daily