Defense shines in U football’s spring game

Michael Dougherty

It’s only April, and Gophers football coach Glen Mason is already hearing rumblings about a quarterback controversy.
The rumblings originated from those who watched Mason’s proclaimed No. 1 quarterback, Billy Cockerham, go 0-for-12 passing in Saturday’s spring game at the Metrodome.
The defense won the game 43-35 when wide receiver Elvin Jones dropped a pass at the 1-yard line that would have won it for the offense, on the last play of the game.
Even though Cockerham’s poor performance was a disappointment, there was something that made Mason happy: the person who devised the scoring scheme that provided such a close game.
“I think the guy that invented that scoring system today is a genius,” he said.
Mason, of course, implemented the unusual method himself. The system awarded one point to the offense for a first down, seven points for a touchdown and three points for a field goal.
The defense scored two points for forcing a punt and three points for a turnover. There were also more complex point procedures for certain plays in the red zone.
“I was asked, Is this going to be a game or is this going to be a situation?'” Mason said. “As soon as you say situation everybody kind of just thumbs their nose at it, but we made a game of offense vs. defense, and it was quite competitive.”
Mason’s happiness with the close game aside, he admitted that the offense is struggling to adjust to the fresh system implemented by new offensive coordinator Steve Loney.
Despite the new system, backup quarterbacks Andy Persby and Ryan Keller seemed to throw the ball with more confidence than Cockerham, and they were both able to make the necessary reads that seemed to confuse Cockerham.
When it was suggested to Mason that Keller played the best, however, the coach dismissed the implication, attempting to end all talk of a controversy.
“That’s why you guys are on the sidelines,” he guffawed. “We’ve been through 15 days of practice and all positions are always up for grabs, but Billy Cockerham has established himself as our number one guy right now.
“Ryan Keller is a streak player. He looks good in scrimmages, then everything goes wrong and he tries to freelance.”
Cockerham was also dismissing the sub-par outing, chalking it up to the new system and inexperienced receivers.
But he did say he was impressed with the way those receivers played, even though they didn’t haul in any of his passes.
“A couple of the wideouts stepped up really big, like Elvin Jones,” Cockerham said. “With the graduation of Tutu (Atwell), we need those guys that came here in the spring to step it up.”
The 6-foot-4 Jones caught four balls for 52 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown from Persby on a nice fade route in the corner of the end zone.
Spencer Dettman also looked good, with three receptions for 29 yards, despite being sick with a cold. But the junior, who sported bloody knees and a bloody elbow, was more upset about what could have been.
“I had the opportunity to make some plays that I wish I would have come up with,” he said. “I guarantee we’ll improve. We know what we’ve got to do, we were just kind of thinking a little too much.”
While the passing game was sputtering, the running game chugged along rather effectively, led by freshman Renato Fitzpatrick, who rushed 16 times for 78 yards.
“Renato Fitzpatrick is a guy who’s been out of football for a year,” Mason said. “We signed him a year ago and he didn’t qualify, so he stayed out and worked hard. He’s really coming on like gangbusters, and he’s only going to be an incoming freshman come August, so we think we’ve got a good player there.”
Thomas Hamner, who has led the team in rushing in each of the past two seasons, started the first drive strong, but finished with only 35 yards on 13 rushes.
After gaining 19 yards on his first three carries, the Gophers defense shut Hamner down the rest of the way with an aggressive, pursuing front seven.
Cockerham was impressed with the play of the defense.
“We’ll definitely be a notch better, just for the fact that our defense is going to be a lot better,” he said. “They were fifth in the Big Ten last year, and I think they’re going to improve on that this season.”
Mason also said that his defense, which lost All-American Lamanzer Williams to graduation, is more solid than last year’s unit.
“I always look to the defense first, and try to compare spring to spring,” Mason said. “Are we a better defense right now than we were a year ago at this time? There’s no doubt about it.”
With Williams and his team-record 18 1/2 sacks gone, defensive coordinator David Gibbs is looking for a pass rusher to replace him. But the most impressive pass rusher on Saturday might not be around next year to help.
Shelton Benjamin, an All-American heavyweight wrestler for Minnesota and a sprinter on the track team, had a team-high two sacks on Saturday, sparking some interest from Mason.
“I love wrestlers because those guys are tough guys,” Mason said. “And if he makes up his mind to play, he’ll help us out next year.”
Benjamin, who has used up his wrestling eligibility, isn’t sure if he will play next year because he wants to concentrate on his school work. If he does play, however, he might need to put some extra weight on his 220-pound frame. But that’s something that might cause some problems.
“Actually, I’ve been trying to put on 20 pounds for the last two and a half years,” Benjamin said. “But my body just won’t let me do it.”
But packing some pounds onto Benjamin’s chiseled physique is the furthest thing from Mason’s mind.
Overall, he said there were some really good things that happened this spring, as well as some bad things.
“Am I totally happy? No. But we’ve had a good tough spring practice, and the players are glad it’s over.”

GOPHERS STATISTICS

Rushing — Fitzpatrick 16-78; Hamner 13-35; Cockerham 5-25; Persby 10-17; Henderson 1-12; Bean 4-6; Keller 4-5.
Passing — Keller 5-14-1-67; Persby 6-11-0-63; Cockerham 0-12-0-0.
Receiving — Jones 4-52; Dettman 3-29; Vevea 1-15; Wasurick 1-14; Duerr 1-11; Henderson 1-9.