It didn’t take Minnesota football coach Glen Mason long to outline his key objectives Monday as the Gophers enter spring practice.
Mason diagramed five items, expanding the offense, evaluation of talent, improving the overall defense, working on the punt game and bettering fundamentals.
One question Mason didn’t have to answer was about his starting quarterback.
After platooning with Travis Cole over the last two seasons, junior Asad Abdul-Khaliq will be the unquestioned starter heading into the season and Mason put the onus on the newly elected co-captain to raise his level of play.
“I expect great leadership from him,” Mason said. “He has been around here, he has playing experience and he has proven he can play at this level.”
Abdul-Khaliq will be a central figure for the Gophers as they begin spring practice Tuesday.
One of Mason’s missions is to expand the offense by employing more formations, using more motion and a developing a two-tight end set.
“We are going to throw a lot at him because we think he can handle it,” Mason said.
To expand the offense, Mason must first rebuild the offensive line for the second straight season. Only two starters, Jake Kuppe and Jeremiah Carter, return from last season.
“It all starts with the center,” Mason said. “We have to solidify that position first.”
Overall, the Gophers return five starters on offense and eight on defense, but Mason hinted nobody’s starting spot was safe as part of his spring talent evaluation.
“You need to go back and evaluate those guys,” Mason said. “Just because a guy was a starter last year doesn’t mean he is going to be a starter this year and just because a guy wasn’t a very good player last year doesn’t mean he might not be a better player this year.”
Optimistic about the offense, Mason seemed most concerned about his defense, specifically the team’s ability to rush the passer and its tackling.
Question marks abound on the defensive line and secondary.
“We got a lot of bodies back there in the secondary,” Mason said. “We will probably see some things happen there in spring practice.”
On special teams, Mason stressed the importance of the punting game.
Finally, Mason wants his team to become fundamentally sound, improve its conditioning and its cohesiveness.
“I have always believed if you make people better in the basics of football, you are going to be better,” Mason said.
Four Gophers will not be returning this season.
According to Mason, Steven Watson and Mackenzy Toussaint have decided to transfer.
Watson and Toussaint were charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old University student, but both were found innocent Dec. 18.
Running back Tellis Redmon opted to forgo his senior season and made himself available for the National Football League draft.
Defensive end Astein Osei graduated and decided to not use his final year of eligibility.
Oh captain, my captain
In a change of procedure Mason has already named his 2002 co-captains, Abdul-Khaliq and senior Mike Lehan.
In previous seasons Mason waited for the beginning of two-a-days practice in August to name captains.
Abdul-Khaliq started eight games last season, including the final seven while Lehan will be starting at cornerback for the third consecutive season.
Making the switch
Two players will be making position switches during spring practice.
Senior Renato Fitzpatrick will be returning to the offensive backfield as a running back. Fitzpatrick made the move to linebacker last season after spending time as a running back his first two seasons.
Redshirt freshman Brandon Hall came to the Gophers as an offensive lineman and will be switching to the defensive line.
Bumps and bruises
The Gophers have three injured players heading into the spring.
Sophomore offensive lineman Ricky Wymer is coming off a knee surgery while freshman lineman Richard Ellman is still rehabilitating from back surgery in high school.
Junior linebacker Paul Nixon will miss the first two weeks while he recovers from surgery to repair a sports hernia.
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