Countdown to Kickoff 2009: The Preseason Top 50—No. 39 Minnesota

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Countdown to Kickoff 2009: The Preseason Top 50—No. 39 Minnesota
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Spring practice has wrapped up across the country, and kickoff is under three months away. To make the time go a little faster, I will count down my top 50 teams, one team at a time.


No. 40  Tennessee Volunteers

No. 39  MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS

It may come as a surprise to some college football fans, but the Gophers have won six national championships. All of them were won while playing football outdoors.

The harsh Minnesota elements, especially once November rolls around, provide a home field advantage that was lacking in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

While even Minnesota fans aren't expecting a seventh championship this season, coach Tim Brewster hopes the new TCF Bank Stadium, set to open this fall, can create the same type of home field advantage as other Big Ten teams.

"It's been tremendous. The state of Minnesota is so excited for the opening," Brewster said. "It's a dream come true. The stadium has far exceeded all the expectations I had for it. I think it will be a tremendous home field advantage for us."

Another reason for the Gopher faithful to be excited for opening day is that the team is loaded with veterans. Tim Brewster's squad returns 17 starters, and leading the bunch are quarterback Adam Weber and wide receiver Eric Decker.

Weber, one of the most underrated signal callers in the nation, threw for 2,761 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, with 1,074 of those yards and seven of those touchdowns going to Decker.

The passing game could be even better if the Gophers can improve on a rushing attack that averaged a meager 3.1 yards per carry last season.

Brewster has conceded the Gophers need to get back to their punishing running style, perfected under Glen Mason, while holding onto their identity as a spread team.

DeLeon Eskridge, the team's leading rusher in 2008, missed time during the spring with "bumps and bruises," but he will be ready in the fall and could be that punishing back Brewster and new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch are looking for. 

The coaches were also impressed with tailback Kevin Whaley, who took advantage of extra reps he received while Eskridge was out and delivered a strong spring.

Backup quarterback MarQueis Gray had a solid spring and could see some time as a change of pace. Brewster and Fisch are devising a packet of plays to get him in the game.

"I felt all along we were going to use MarQueis and have packages for him, and he's done nothing but enhance what I've thought," Brewster said. "He's a very gifted player."

There are new coordinators on the defensive side of the ball as well. Former defensive coordinator Ted Roof is now in charge of defense at Auburn, and in his place is former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove.

Cosgrove represents Brewster's third defensive coordinator in as many seasons. Cosgrove is charged with bringing stability to a unit that was pounded late last season. Minnesota surrendered 97 points in its last two games and 161 over the final four.

The good news is that the top four tacklers from last season, Kyle Theret, Lee Campbell, Tramaine Brock, and Simoni Lawrence, all return. 

The Gophers are hoping junior Kim Royston, a Wisconsin transfer, is able to claim the safety spot opposite Brock. If he can, the secondary could be solid when you add in Marcus Sherels and Traye Simmons.

The defense should also be much stronger up the middle with the emergence of tackles Garrett Brown and Eric Small. The duo put together a strong spring and should combine with middle linebacker Campbell to make the Gophers strong at the point of attack.

The Gophers made a somewhat unexpected leap from one victory in 2007 to seven last year, and there is genuine optimism surrounding the team.

Now they need to learn endurance.

Minnesota stumbled badly down the stretch last season, losing their last five games. That can be attributed to a dramatic leap in the quality of the opponent. Now is the time for the Gophers to make that same leap.

Minnesota needs to beat one of the premier teams in the league this season before they're considered legitimate.

The offensive duo of Weber and Decker, plus a revamped defense, could get the team over the hump.


KEEP AN EYE ON

Matt Carufel (G)

A Notre Dame transfer who is from perennial power St. Paul (Minn.) Cretin-Derham Hall, Carufel will be called upon to help fortify what has been a weak offensive line. Coaches already have Carufel penciled in to start at left guard, and he must block well for Minnesota's new rushing attack to thrive.

 

Raymond Henderson (DE)

He was a four-star recruit who signed with Tennessee out of high school but ended up transferring to Minnesota. Henderson, a senior, has the speed and athletic ability to be a force as a pass rusher off the edge for a defense that always needs playmakers.

 

Kim Royston (S)

Royston, another former Cretin-Derham Hall star, is a Wisconsin transfer. He will be looked at as either an upgrade over Theret or a replacement for Brock. Royston, a junior, was a big contributor for the Badgers.

 

UP NEXT: The Big East checks in at No. 38. How do you replace a legend? This Big East power is trying to answer that question.

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