High expectations for ground game, team

The Gophers will enter the 2004 season with two highly touted running backs and a new starting quarterback. That combination leads to questions, but many of the predictions for Glen Mason's squad are favorable.

Minnesota's ground game is the envy of the Big Ten ... and most of the nation, for that matter.

Marion Barber III might have a shot at the Heisman if it weren't for the presence of sophomore RB Laurence Maroney. Heck, it might be Maroney mentioned for the Heisman if not for Barber, a junior.

Either of the backs — both? — could win All-Big Ten honors. They each exceeded the 1,000-yard mark in 2003.

Elsewhere on offense, QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq has moved on after an underappreciated college career. Sophomore Bryan Cupito gets the call and has a strong enough arm and good enough instincts to lead a ground-oriented team this fall. However, he will still have to prove he can make key throws in clutch situations for the Gophers to be the best they can be.

Minnesota has gained a reputation for having one of the softest non-conference schedules in the country. Names like Southwest Texas State, Troy State and Louisiana-Monroe have been a part of the Golden Gopher schedule for years.

This year, the Gophers will not begin with any waltzes. They face Colorado State and Toledo ... and both opponents are capable of handing Minnesota a defeat. However, if the Gophers can emerge from those games unscathed, they have a chance to have another undefeated record when they face Michigan on Oct. 9 at Ann Arbor. That game will show just how far the Minnesota program has come in 12 months.

PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked 25th (tie) by Street & Smith's; ranked 24th by Athlon. C Greg Eslinger, second-team All-America by Lindy's and Athlon; 3rd team by Street & Smith's. RB Marion Barber, 1st team by Street & Smith's. The offensive line is ranked second nationally by Lindy's, ninth in Athlon.

KEY GAME: There's little doubt that the Oct. 9 trip to Michigan will be a huge hurdle for this team — both physical and psychological after last season's fourth-quarterback collapse against the Wolverines. If the Gophers can win at Michigan, they will be ready to challenge for Big Ten supremacy. If not, Glen Mason will have just another good team on his hands. That may be as much a curse as it is a complement.

THE MINDSET: The mindset is strong. This team has a real chance to batter the old ghosts and emerge on the other side. Mason has seven starters returning on offense and six on defense. The program is on good footing under Mason's stern hand, and there is a feeling that this could be the year that the Gophers make a big breakthrough.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq was an excellent runner and a decent passer throughout his career at Minnesota. He was not asked to win games — he just could not lose them. New QB Bryan Cupito will have to step up and prove he can do more than hand the ball off to Marion Barber or Laurence Maroney. Cupito has a bigger arm than his predecessor and his ability to get the ball downfield will help his outstanding running backs. He threw the game-winning TD pass with less than a minute remaining in the Gophers' spring game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Illinois pulling the scholarship could be the best thing that ever happened to him." — Terri Terrell, mother of Laurence Maroney, on her son's path to Minnesota. Maroney became a star in his freshman season.

PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: RB Marion Barber — He ran for 1,196 yards and 17 TDs in 2003. A power runner who excels around the goal line, Barber could be ready for a huge year.

RB Laurence Maroney — He ran for 1,121 yards and averaged 6.9 yards per carry as a freshman. Maroney has tremendous speed and is a threat to go all the way any time he gets his hands on the ball.

WR Jared Ellerson — The big-play threat the Gophers need for their passing game. He totaled 909 receiving yards and seemed to get better as the year progressed. His combination of size, strength and speed make him a major threat to opposing secondaries.

PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: DE Darrel Reid — Head coach Glen Mason needs a huge season from Reid if the Minnesota defense is going to hold up its end of the bargain. He posted 5.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss last year and is one of the emotional leaders of the defense.

LB Kyle McKenzie — A solid tackler who ranked fifth on the team last year with 61 tackles. He also had two forced fumbles and has the closing speed to prevent big plays by opposing offenses.

INJURY IMPACT: Speedy WR Paris Hamilton returns from a knee injury that kept him out all off last season. Other than that, the Gophers should be healthy.

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