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March 23, 2009

Minnesota looking to build on bowl season

Minnesota had a horrendous 2007 season, finishing 1-11. The Golden Gophers were able to get back on the winning side of the ledger last season, finishing 7-6 and going to a bowl.

But after a 7-1 start, the Gophers lost five in a row to end the season, so there still is work to be done.

The offense will be revamped this season and the search is on for more playmakers. The defense hopes to continue making steps toward respectability.

Here's a look at the Golden Gophers as they ready for spring practice.

MINNESOTA AT-A-GLANCE
Adam Weber is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the nation.
THE BASICS
Coach: Tim Brewster
Last season: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten
Spring dates: March 24-April 25
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (9): G D.J. Burris, WR Eric Decker, RB DeLeon Eskridge, WR Ben Kuznia, T Jason Meinke, G Ned Tavale, C Jeff Tow-Arnett, QB Adam Weber, T Ryan Wynn.
Defense (8): S Tramaine Brock, T Garrett Brown, LB Lee Campbell, E Derrick Onwuachi, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Traye Simmons, T Eric Small, S Kyle Theret.
Special teams: None.
Positions of strength

This team is loaded with veterans. The unquestioned star is Adam Weber, who is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the nation. If safety Tramaine Brock makes it back to school after straightening out his academics it will be a big boost. 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.

Help is needed

The running game needs a big upgrade. The Golden Gophers rushed for just 103.8 yards per game in 2008. There will be new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The biggest change will come on offense, with former Denver Broncos wide receivers coach Jedd Fisch taking over play-calling duties from Mike Dunbar, who is gone. Minnesota will transition from a spread attack to a more ground-oriented offense. When Ted Roof departed to become defensive coordinator at Auburn, Minnesota opted to go with co-coordinators. Secondary coach Ronnie Lee was promoted, and coach Tim Brewster hired ex-Nebraska and Wisconsin defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove to help him. It should be a strong duo. The secondary needs an upgrade after giving up 21 TD passes last season.

Keep an eye on

G Matt Carufel: Carufel is a transfer (Notre Dame) who is from perennial power St. Paul (Minn.) Cretin-Derham Hall. Carufel needs to help fortify what has been a weak offensive line. Coaches already have Carufel penciled in to start at left guard. He must block well for Minnesota's new rushing attack to thrive.

DE Raymond Henderson: 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. However, he hasn't done much yet.

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

His time is now

It is vital that end Derrick Onwuachi, a senior, assumes the pass-rushing role that departed Willie Van DeSteeg filled. Onwuachi has been a starter for most of his career but has yet to fulfill the promise that followed him to campus. Gopher staffers think he has the talent to be one of the Big Ten's top pass rushers. Will Onwuachi, a former junior college transfer, finally live up to expectations?

The buzz

Players will have their hands full learning new schemes on both sides of the ball. The defense showed progress last season, especially in being aggressive and generating turnovers. The learning curve will be steeper on offense, as the Gophers want to be more run-oriented. Keep an eye on the line, which needs to improve. New line coach Tim Davis who had been director of player personnel at Alabama for Nick Saban should help. Davis already has incorporated a hard-edge approach to toughen the unit. It's all about building on last year's turnaround season.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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