A new era begins for the Gophers as long-time NFL and college assistant coach Tim Brewster takes over a program that was a perennial bowl team under Glen Mason but was unable to take the next step.
Brewster, who has never been a coordinator, created a buzz around the state with his non-stop enthusiasm and willingness to sell his program. It remains to be seen if he can have the same sort of effect on the on-field product.
Brewster's first six months were eventful and questions abound going into fall camp. The Gophers must replace three-year starting quarterback Bryan Cupito, who graduated as the school's all-time leading passer. Junior Tony Mortensen, redshirt freshman Adam Weber and true freshman Clint Brewster — son of the head coach — enter camp in a three-way competition. Mortensen has the most experience, and he's only started one game.
The Gophers are switching to a spread offense under long-time offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar, who spent last season at Cal. Dunbar's system is more complicated than the team's previous offense so it might take time before the offense gels.
The defense, much maligned in the past, will be without arguably its best player in junior cornerback Dominic Jones, one of four players who was dismissed from the team after being accused of being involved in a campus rape this past spring. Jones, also a dynamic kick returner, is the only one of the four who has been charged.
Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg emerged as a pass-rushing specialist last season with 10 sacks, second most in the Big Ten.
The Gophers are picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten in part because of the coaching change, uncertainty at quarterback and personnel losses from the player dismissals. Brewster, however, insists his team has enough to win right away and disputes that this is a rebuilding job.
Key game: vs. Purdue, Sept. 22. The Gophers should enter the Big Ten opener undefeated. The Boilermakers spread offense puts pressure on opponent's secondary, which will be a huge test for the Gophers defensive backs.
THE GOPHERS WILL SUCCEED IF: The quarterback — whoever wins the job — plays consistently and doesn't put the offense in bad positions. The defense has plenty of experience and more depth along the defensive line than in recent years. Tim Brewster is an aggressive, high-energy coach so maybe his excitement will give his team confidence and hope.
THE GOPHERS WILL FAIL IF: The quarterback is inconsistent and the offense struggles in its transition to the more complicated spread attack. The defense has razor-thin depth, especially in the secondary, so injuries could be devastating.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm very comfortable in the role that I'm in. I don't have a nervousness or a feeling of, ‘Hey, am I ready to do this?' I believe that I am ready to do this. I have great confidence in my ability to lead this team." — Coach Tim Brewster on his state of mind entering his first training camp.
HEAD COACH: Tim Brewster, first season, 0-0
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Amir Pinnix rushed for 1,272 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. He's also highly respected inside the locker room. The Gophers will need him to shoulder a heavy load to take some pressure off a first-year starter at quarterback.
BREAKOUT STAR: TE Jack Simmons played in the shadow of Mackey Award winner Matt Spaeth last season but had a huge game in the Insight Bowl (seven catches, 134 yards). He has a chance to thrive in this new offense.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DB Curtis Thomas. The coaching staff absolutely loves this true freshman from Texas. He has good size (6-1, 200 pounds) and can play either corner or safety. He should have an immediate impact.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Offense --QB Tony Mortensen/Adam Weber, RB Amir Pinnix, FB Justin Valentine, WR Ernie Wheelwright, WR Eric Decker, TE Jack Simmons, LT Steve Shidell, LG Ryan Ruckdashel, C Tony Brinkhaus, RG Ned Tavale, RT Matt DeGeest
Defense — DE Willie VanDeSteeg, DT Neel Allen, DT Eric Small, DE Willie Dyson, OLB Steve Davis, MLB Mike Sherels, OLB John Shevlin, CB Jamal Harris, CB Desi Steib, FS Dominique Barber, SS Duran Cooley
Senior offensive linemen Tony Brinkhaus (ankle) and Steve Shidell (leg) had offseason surgeries but both are healthy and ready for full contact.
Junior Steve Davis was a two-year starter at defensive end but he was moved to outside linebacker this spring and has found a new home.
True freshman Curtis Thomas was a highly regarded safety prospect coming out of high school, but he could move to cornerback to fill a need.
On-Field Product Still Undetermined
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