Gophers Football: A Look Ahead

The Minnesota Gophers are expected to have new starters at more than half the positions on defense, as well as a new defensive coordinator and changes on offense. We look at the emerging stars and top newcomers for the 2008 team.

The Gophers will install another new defensive system with the arrival of Ted Roof as defensive coordinator. The Gophers are expected to have at least seven new starters on defense so this will be a fresh start for everyone.

The Gophers will be without their top two receivers from 2007. Ernie Wheelwright graduated and Eric Decker is playing for the school's baseball team. Senior tight end Jack Simmons also will be held out of spring drills after having foot surgery. Those absences should open the door for young guys, but the coaches are counting on at least three members of the incoming recruiting class to play significant roles.

The offensive line needs to be solidified with the departure of center Tony Brinkhaus and left tackle Steve Shidell.

BUILDING BLOCKS

QB Adam Weber returns after a record-setting freshman season as the starter. Weber showed plenty of promise and potential operating Mike Dunbar's zone-read spread offense and the coaching staff believes he will make sizable improvement in his second season. Weber is a terrific athlete who looks like a natural in this system.

DE Willie VanDeSteeg had a disappointing junior season after suffering a broken hand in the first week. VanDeSteeg is finally healthy and can be a pass-rushing force on the edge, which was lacking from the defense last season.

Senior TE Jack Simmons excels as a receiver, but a foot injury derailed his entire 2007 season. Simmons can be a security blanket for Weber over the middle and present problems for linebackers in coverage because of his size, speed and route running.

STARS OF 2008

QB Adam Weber — Set a number of school passing records as a redshirt freshman. He completed 258 of 449 pass attempts (57.5 percent) for 2,895 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 617 yards with five touchdowns. He set Minnesota single-season records for passing yards (2,895), completions (258), touchdown passes (24) and total offense (3,512).

WR Eric Decker — The junior set a school record in 2007 with 67 receptions for 909 yards and nine touchdowns. Decker's receiving yardage and touchdowns also ranked in the Gophers' top five all-time in school history. He will not take part in spring practice because he is playing baseball for the Gophers.

LB Deon Hightower — Became a starter halfway through the season and still finished second in tackles with 70, including a team-high 9.5 for loss. Hightower can play any of the three linebacker spots but excelled once the coaching staff moved him to the middle. He is the team's hardest hitter despite playing at only 220 pounds.

TOP NEWCOMERS

LB Sam Maresh — Coach Tim Brewster described this true freshman as a "flag bearer" for his program and the most important member of the 2008 class. Maresh (6-3, 235 pounds) is a hard-nosed physical talent who is also a state champion wrestler. Many believe he will start from Day One at middle linebacker.

WR Brandon Green — Big-time playmaker out of Chicago could start opposite Eric Decker as a true freshman. Four-star prospect caught 62 passes for 1,114 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior and is the ideal fit for the Gophers' spread offense.

S Simoni Lawrence — Junior college transfer is expected to win a starting job and be a key cog in a remade secondary. A standout at Valley Forge Military Academy, he should bring more speed and athleticism to the defense.

CB Traye Simmons — Highly-ranked junior college transfer is expected to start at one cornerback spot. Coaching staff believes he can cover any Big Ten receiver without help over the top. Simmons did not get admitted to school for the winter semester but expects to enroll this summer or fall.


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