Gophers like beat of Texas two-step

by Michael Dougherty

Drill Sgt. Hartman told Texas-native Private Cowboy in the movie “Full Metal Jacket,” that “only steers and queers come from Texas.”
Fortunately for Gophers football coach Glen Mason, he has been able to import a defensive end and a free safety from the Lone Star state, shooting the always-shouting Hartman’s assertion incorrect.
Both defensive end Karon Riley and free safety Jack Brewer have made the trip up I-35 from Southern Methodist University in Dallas to the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex bringing nothing but untapped talent and some intense desire to play football.
Riley, a junior who played two years for the Mustangs, left SMU because he said he didn’t feel comfortable with the new coach, Mike Cavan, who was brought in when Tom Rossley was fired after the 1996 season.
Riley was heavily recruited by Rossley out of Martin Luther King High School in Detroit, where he was teammates with current Gophers’ receiver Ron Johnson and defensive end Germain Landrum. But once Rossley was let go, Riley said he just had a different philosophy than the new coaching staff and decided to transfer immediately after the last game.
After discussions with UCLA, Pittsburgh and Michigan State, Riley said he picked Minnesota because, “I just got a good vibe about it.”
Brewer, meanwhile, was recruited by Cavan and caught 19 passes for 352 yards and four touchdowns for the Mustangs as a freshman in 1997. But he said the level of competition he was playing with at SMU, a member of the Western Athletic Conference, just wasn’t high enough for him. He also said he felt he was misled by Cavan and his staff.
“I didn’t like the feeling of coming into practice from day one and being the best at my position,” Brewer said. “I wanted to be pushed a little, and SMU just wasn’t the level of football I wanted to play in.”
Brewer, who had visited Minnesota while still in high school, said he chose SMU originally so he could be close to his family, which live in Grapevine, Tex. But after weighing the positives and negatives, Brewer decided that playing at Minnesota would be the best thing for him.
The decision to transfer here by both players was made more than a year-and-a-half ago, but the Gophers are now just feeling the impact.
“Sometimes kids pick a school for the wrong reason and they realize it a year or two later,” Gophers defensive coordinator David Gibbs said. “I’m just glad they picked our school to transfer to.”
Gibbs said Riley’s impact on the defense will be felt immediately. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Riley can bench more than 400 pounds, has a 36-inch vertical leap and can run the 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds.
“He could play anywhere in the country — Ohio State, Michigan — all of those places,” Gibbs said.
Although Gibbs knew of the potential impact Riley would have on his defense, he got a surprise when Brewer, who came to the Gophers as a receiver, made the switch to defense this spring.
Brewer was moved to the defensive side when Gibbs said he and Mason realized the loss of last year’s starting free safety Keith Dimmy and starting cornerback Craig Scruggs to graduation left the secondary with a glaring lack of depth.
At the same time, Gibbs said he also noticed the overflowing depth receiver offensive coordinator Steve Loney had, and consequently the discussion of moving Brewer on the other side of the ball was tossed over to Brewer.
“They brought it up to me last year, and I knew Keith was leaving,” Brewer said. “I knew I could play free safety, and they wanted a free safety with some good ball skills and I definitely have some pretty good ball skills.”
The move wasn’t made until spring practice, but Brewer has made the transition with ease and everyone involved is happy. However, there are still some drawbacks.
“I’m going to miss having the ball in my hands — there’s no doubt about that — I am going to miss it,” Brewer said. “I just want to play the game. If I’m on the field, I’ll be happy.”
With both players already penciled into the starting lineup, they both agree sitting out for one year because of the transfer was well worth it.
Although Brewer is currently nursing a mild ankle sprain that has kept him out of a couple of practices, he will return to practice today.
He said he can’t wait to get back on the field after going without playing a real game for the first time since he was 6 years old.
“I go full speed all the time,” he said. “I don’t take anything for granted because I know what it’s like to have to sit out a year.”
Riley also said the year off was beneficial for him because, at 20 years old, he needed the time to mature. He said he now finally feels like the player he always knew he could be. He said although there were some disadvantages to sitting out a year, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
“We sat out and watched and learned,” Riley said. “We got bigger, stronger and faster. But most of all, we got that hunger that people can’t take away.
“We want to go full speed and play all of the time. It’s like you took something from us and now you gave it back, so now we know the value of it.”