Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- There's a noticeable buzz around Minnesota football right now, with a new on-campus stadium opening this fall and plenty on the agenda for spring practice, which began Tuesday. The Gophers welcome new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a new offensive system, which will look more what fans are used to in the Twin Cities.
Head coach Tim Brewster saw the team improve its record by six games last fall, but the Gophers ended on a five-game slide, including a 55-0 thrashing at the hands of archrival Iowa. With 10 offensive starters back and several playmakers on the defensive side, Minnesota hopes to take another step forward this fall, but will negotiate what appears to be a much tougher schedule. Here are Brewster's thoughts on the squad as spring ball gets under way.
It seems pretty ambitious what you guys are doing this spring, with the new guys, the scheme tweaks and changes. Is it one of the more ambitious spring practice sessions you've been a part of?
Tim Brewster: I just don't think it's quite as ambitious as you think. We installed quite a bit of the offense before the bowl game. To me, what's exciting about where we're at is we've got some depth, we've got some experienced players, but more importantly, some really talented players coming back. And then when you add to the mix guys like [linebackers] Keanon Cooper, Spencer Reeves and Gary Tinsley, some of these guys particularly on defense, that's really an exciting thing for us.
You said you wouldn't trade [quarterback] Adam [Weber] for anybody in the country. You also think highly of MarQueis Gray. Do you envision MarQueis just sitting and waiting the next two years?
TB: No, no. We're going to incorporate MarQueis into every game. We'll go in with a plan on how we're going to utilize him. I brought [Texas offensive coordinator] Greg Davis up here from Texas, and I talked to Greg about how they incorporated Vince [Young] into the game plan in Vince's redshirt freshman year. He played every game, but what was the real thought process that went into it. We really had some good conversations on how to do that. It's a tough thing because of the flow of the game. You say, 'I want him to play the third series.' Well, something may dictate that the third series, you want to keep Adam in the game. But he'll make a contribution. Heck, MarQueis could play wide receiver. MarQueis could be a running back. There's a lot of different ways to utilize a player of his ability.
Does it help to have that reference point with Vince Young?
TB: Very strong similarities between the two. But the biggest challenge is this: We've been really lucky. Adam Weber's taken every snap. At some point, injuries happen. Is MarQueis Gray ready to step in and drive this car and run this offense? That's the biggest challenge that [new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch] has, making sure MarQueis Gray is ready to be a full-time quarterback. He's the No. 2 quarterback at worst right now, so that's a real challenge.
It seems like line play is going to be a focus on both sides of the ball.
TB: Yes, and I think we're going to be much better up front. It really helped moving [left tackle] Dom Alford inside. Ryan Wynn is a very talented guy who was playing right tackle. He doesn't need to be a right tackle. He'll play at center, possibly at guard. Matt Carufel, also [at guard]. And then you look at the development of [left tackle Matt] Stommes. Stommes' measurables, shoot, the NFL people who have come in here have said, 'Who the heck is that?' It's kind of like the guy's come out of nowhere. And [right tackle Jeff] Wills' development is going to be big. Is he putting himself in a position where he can be a starter?
Some people would look to the secondary and say look what you guys did there last year, but it sounds like you're almost more excited about the D-line and the linebackers.
TB: I really am. The front seven for us has got a chance to be really good. I think we'll be good on the back end, too. We're just a little thin. A kid like [cornerback] Michael Carter coming in, Michael's going to have to play as a freshman. And we've got some other guys. Today it's so hard to find defensive linemen, and particularly the young inside guys, Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey, they've got a chance to be really good. And then you've got [Eric] Small and [Garrett] Brown. So we've got four inside guys. And then I think we'll be better on the edge. D.L. Wilhite's a kid who redshirted last year and has got really good speed. And with [Cedric] McKinley, [Derek] Onwuachi, we've got some guys there.
The spring gives you a chance to find some playmakers, too, especially with Weber limited and Eric Decker playing baseball.
TB: Eric Decker's going to be ready to play. What I'm concerned about is somebody else being ready. That's how you've got to look at it, a positive thing and not a negative thing.
You mentioned last year's team was significantly improved. Is that the same goal for 2009?
TB: This year, we want to make the same improvement, but it's a tougher step, a much tougher step, particularly with a much tougher schedule.