With 2010 lost, hope for 2011

The prospect of a new head coach and returning talent gives players and coaches optimism about next season.

Gophers junior tight end Eric Lair attempts to dodge Michigan's senior line backer Greg Jones Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

Gophers junior tight end Eric Lair attempts to dodge Michigan’s senior line backer Greg Jones Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

Josh Katzenstein

Nobody âÄî fans, players or coaches âÄî wanted this to be the fate of the 2010 Minnesota football team.

It was never going to be easy to replace the connection between quarterback Adam Weber and receiver Eric Decker or to rebuild a defense that returned only one full-time starter (Kyle Theret) from a season ago.

But this? It wasnâÄôt supposed to be like this.

The Gophers are mired in an eight-game losing streak and fired fourth-year head coach Tim Brewster on Oct. 17.

Despite a season thatâÄôs been unsuccessful in every sense of the word, the Gophers can be better in 2011.

The system installed by the new coach, though, will determine how far a fairly talented group can go.

âÄúWe have all the players here that we need,âÄù freshman defensive end Kendall Gregory-McGhee said. âÄúWe have great athletes. Everybody knows what weâÄôre doing. We just have to be able to execute all the time âÄî all at once âÄî and thatâÄôs been our problem this year.âÄù

Gregory-McGhee, who will start his first game Saturday, will be part of a defense that next year will return 10 full-time starters, assuming interim head coach Jeff Horton is correct in thinking few, if any, players will transfer upon the hiring of a new coach. The GophersâÄô defense has struggled all season, but with young players like Gregory-McGhee returning with experience, 2011 could be much better.

âÄúItâÄôs like a hands-on learning where âÄî when IâÄôm in a position to play more âÄî IâÄôll already know what to expect. Kind of like an internship,âÄù he said. âÄúI get to test it out, but itâÄôs not my full-time job.âÄù

Next season, MarQueis Gray should finally have the full-time job he wants. Unless the new coach wants him to continue playing wide receiver, Gray will start at quarterback, the position Brewster recruited him to play.

GrayâÄôs athleticism is unquestioned and his size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) gives him a chance to turn heads in a way similar to AuburnâÄôs Cameron Newton. The Tigers are 9-0 in his first year as starting quarterback and in Gene ChizikâÄôs second year as head coach.

The Gophers likely wonâÄôt start 9-0 âÄî after all, they open next season at Southern California.

But Gray has been waiting for his opportunity to shine, and if a coach can come in and cater to his skill set, the Gophers can be âÄî at the very least âÄî competitive.

âÄúHeâÄôs clearly a talented guy, and any prospective head coach is going to look at him and say that he can help,âÄù ESPN senior college football writer Ivan Maisel said. âÄúItâÄôs going to take more than Gray to get them back into contention in the [Big Ten], butâĦ he seems to have the talent on which you can build something.âÄù

The Gophers will return other talented players like running backs Duane Bennett, whom Weber pegged as a likely captain for next season, and DeLeon Eskridge. Breakout wide receiver DaâÄôJon McKnight will also be back and should be GrayâÄôs best target.

Regardless of whoâÄôs back, not all will thrive in the new coachâÄôs system. Maisel, who has covered college football for 22 years, said that some coaches might not be excited about returning 10 starters from a meager defensive unit.

âÄúCoaches sometimes joke that older players who havenâÄôt started or havenâÄôt succeeded may not give you the benefit that you think they would,âÄù he said.

At the same time, a new coach means players have another shot at a first impression, which could motivate some to play better than they have in the past.

âÄúThereâÄôs an enthusiasm, certainly your coaches are not beaten down,âÄù Maisel said. âÄúEvery player has a new opportunity to impress his coach. Everybody has a clean slate, and it could be as simple as the fact that the new coaches are better teachers. Sometimes you get the right guy in the right spot.âÄù

The problem at Minnesota, Maisel said, is that the Gophers havenâÄôt been relevant for a long time. With the players and facilities in place, Minnesota can draw a big-name coach, but it could take some time for people who focus on conference races and BCS bowls to recognize the Gophers again.

âÄúI donâÄôt think there is a national perception of Minnesota right now. I just donâÄôt think that the program is on anybodyâÄôs radar screen,âÄù Maisel said. âÄúIt is a great leap to look at Minnesota and think, âÄòThereâÄôs a program that could contend for the Big Ten.âÄôâÄù

Horton, who has been cast into a position of leadership he didnâÄôt expect when Brewster hired him as co-offensive coordinator before this season, thinks the GophersâÄô young nucleus isnâÄôt far from success.

âÄúObviously youâÄôd like for them to go into the offseason with more success, but the thing that will help with the coaching change âÄî maybe have some fresh ideas, new attitude, those kind of things âÄî will help them,âÄù Horton said. âÄúI donâÄôt think this team is as far away as a lot of people think.âÄù

As for Gray, heâÄôs seen what Newton has done for a recently downtrodden Auburn program that lost six of its last seven games in 2008. Newton is currently at the forefront of the Heisman Trophy discussion, a place Gray hopes to find himself in next year when he fills WeberâÄôs shoes.

But heâÄôd also like to do so while winning.

âÄúI hope the [new] coach can look upon us as a team he can build back up,âÄù Gray said. âÄúThey might think that weâÄôre down, but if a coach comes in and has a winning season, his credibility might go up and then get us all in top shape and ready to play next year.âÄù