Tapeh has more than football on his mind

Updated: August 9, 2003, 8:33 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- Thomas Tapeh has finally reached his senior season, and he's healthy for the second straight year.

Minnesota's bruising fullback isn't completely free from distractions, though, since unrest continues in his native country of Liberia.

"This game teaches you that you've just got to separate all your personal conditions, you know?" Tapeh said. "That's what you go to do. That's what I'm doing."

As rebel forces battle supporters of outgoing President Charles Taylor in the port of Monrovia, Tapeh's 19-year-old sister waits for the turmoil to subside so she can rejoin her mother and other siblings in Minnesota.

It's not easy to ignore her danger and the stress the situation has placed on his family, but Tapeh -- who came to the United States at age 9 and became a prep star at St. Paul'sJohnson High School -- is trying to stay focused on football.

It certainly helps that optimism surrounding the start of the Gophers' season seems to be at its highest since Tapeh entered school in the fall of 1999 as a redshirt freshman.

It also helps that Minnesota's backfield looks as deep and talented as ever, with Tapeh, junior Terry Jackson II and sophomore Marion Barber III -- who took a medical redshirt last year because of a hamstring injury.

"We have fun in practice," Tapeh said Saturday during the team's annual media and photo day at the Bierman Field Athletic Complex. "All we have to do is take everything to the game."

Tapeh ran for 906 yards and eight touchdowns last season, and Jackson led the team with 1,317 yards rushing. Barber had 742 yards rushing and seven touchdowns two years ago as a freshman.

"We've got at least three good ones," coach Glen Mason said. "Don't look for us just to be in a one-back set all the time."

Tapeh, a devastating blocker at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, played in only seven games in 2000 (344 yards) and had only 138 yards on 29 attempts in 10 games the next season while being limited by foot injuries that required several surgeries.

His comeback has been an inspiration.

"He's always been a hard runner," said quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq, who also enters his final season. "We haven't even seen half of what this guy can do."

Barber, who endured the frustration of sitting out last year, was able to take some advice from Tapeh.

"He taught me about taking your time and not trying to rush things," Barber said. "That was helpful for me when I was injured, because I didn't want to rush that."

Tapeh is proud of how he's gotten to this point.

"That's what life is about -- a challenge," he said. "You get knocked down, (and) it's how are you going to get back up? I thank God for carrying me."

Game notes
The Gophers had 105 players report to camp this year, including 32 newcomers. They have 15 seniors, up from 10 last season. ... Tapeh, tight end Ben Utecht, defensive tackle Dan Kwapinski, quarterback Benji Kamrath, linebacker Ben West, guard Joe Quinn and cornerback Justin Isom have already received their undergraduate degrees. "They're proud of it," said Mason, who had the studious seven pose in their graduation caps for a group shot Saturday morning. "If you'd have seen Thomas Tapeh out there ... he didn't want to take that hat off." ... Minnesota's biggest injury concern is Paris Hamilton, a junior-college transfer who's in line to start at WR. Hamilton had arthroscopic knee surgery last month, and the team prefers he take his rehabilitation slowly.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index