Offense stars in spring game

Chris Lempesis

Minnesota’s football team entered spring practices with some considerably big question marks on the interior of its offensive line.

The Gophers needed to find replacements for not only Outland Trophy and Rimington Trophy-winning center Greg Eslinger, but also two-time All-Big Ten first-teamer Mark Setterstrom (left guard) and Mike Nicholson (right guard).

As of Saturday’s spring game at the Metrodome, however, it seems things are becoming a bit more certain for Minnesota with regard to the trenches.

The Gophers appear to have found a starting center in Tony Brinkhaus, a junior next season, and a starting left guard in Tyson Swaggert, who will be a senior. The search for a right guard seems to be whittled down to a pair of redshirt freshmen-to-be, Ned Tavale and Ryan Ruckdashel, as well.

“I thought our offensive line really came along (this spring),” coach Glen Mason said.

This perhaps comes as a pleasant surprise, especially considering the situation at center, because while Brinkhaus earned All-Big Ten honorable mention last season, he did it at right tackle.

Brinkhaus admitted the first couple weeks at center were anything but easy.

“It wasn’t like last season where I knew everything I was supposed to do and it was second nature,” Brinkhaus said. “Everything was new to me.”

But Mason, offensive coordinator Mitch Browning and starting quarterback Bryan Cupito all credited Brinkhaus’ development at his new position.

“I think Bubba is more and more comfortable with that position,” Mason said, “and no doubt in my mind he’s our best center. We’re going to go with that.”

Swaggert playing guard is also a switch, as he has been listed as a center up to this point in his career. The same goes for Ruckdashel, who played tackle in high school.

Tavale, however, did play guard in high school. But, as of Saturday, Browning said neither has the lead in the race for the right guard spot.

Cupito looking sharp

During the Glen Mason era, the Gophers have been known as a run-first team. But judging from his performance Saturday, Minnesota could be Cupito’s team this season.

The senior-to-be was 17-of-25 for 251 yards and three touchdowns. He could have had even bigger numbers had his receivers had better hands.

“If you’ve had an opportunity to watch us this spring, you can see Bryan Cupito’s a good quarterback – a very accurate quarterback,” Mason said. “He was accurate today. A couple deep balls were dropped that shouldn’t have been dropped. We look for him to have an outstanding senior season for us.”

Cupito might have to because, as of this spring, the Gophers have just one running back, junior to be Amir Pinnix, with legitimate Division I experience.

“It’s a role you’ve got to accept,” Cupito said. “I don’t have Laurence (Maroney) back there or Marion (Barber) anymore, and I take the challenge to make the plays, and I think I can do that.”

Callender emerging

With Pinnix out with an ankle sprain and Gary Russell academically ineligible for second semester – he’s enrolled in junior college – it would seem as though Minnesota has an opening at running back.

Junior-to-be Brylee Callender looks poised to fill the vacancy.

Callender, a junior college transfer, picked up 110 yards on just 15 carries Saturday, also scoring three touchdowns.

“I feel like I’m going to come and compete (for the job) either way,” Callender said. “But I’m glad that – I mean, I’m not happy for people to get injured – but I’m glad that I got a chance to come out here and step up.”

Mason was pleased with Callender’s performance.

“I thought that he probably ran better today than he has all spring, which you like to see,” Mason said.