Coaches expect deep Big Ten; some compare it to 2002 version

The conference would sure like to send a team to the Rose Bowl this season.

Matt Perkins

CHICAGO – New players, new coaches, new playbooks and, more importantly, new hopes.

The buzz around the Big Ten insists that it intends to be the deepest conference in college football this season, and that would truly be something new.

Everything from Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez’s retirement announcement to national championship hopes were discussed as the Big Ten kicked off its season Monday and Tuesday with the 2005 Big Ten Conference Football Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago.

But the number one topic on many people’s minds involved comparisons to the Big Ten’s 2002 season that saw Ohio State capture the national title. That year there were no expectations for a deep conference, but it developed over the course of the season.

This year, depth is an expectation.

“I love the thought of the national championship being played at the Rose Bowl,” coach Glen Mason said. “I mean, you get your cake and eat it too.”

Preseason polls have Iowa as high as No. 2 in the nation, but nearly every poll has them sitting safely in the top 25 alongside Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue.

Credit where credit due

Center Greg Eslinger and offensive guard Mark Setterstrom were two of the three Gophers players who attended the event, with defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery being the third. They received both praise and questions about the production of the Gophers offensive line, but were quick to defer it all to the guy in the backfield – Laurence Maroney.

“We get a lot of people here talking about our offensive line and how good it is,” Eslinger said. “But I don’t buy into that. I’ve watched the film and Laurence makes the plays. He does some amazing things back there.”

With Marion Barber III leaving early to play in the NFL, Maroney has become the Gophers’ feature back. Mason said Maroney would be receiving 75 percent of the touches to start off the season, but that number could go up or down as the season progresses, depending on Maroney’s durability.

Mason was quick to point out that although Maroney has proven himself talentwise in the Big Ten, there is still a question mark about his ability to handle full-time duties.

During the past two seasons, the Gophers’ main offensive threat has been the tandem of Maroney and Barber, and now the offense will be losing that dimension. Amir Pinnix and Gary Russell figure to pick up the other carries.

New “special” faces

Two new faces grace the Gophers’ starting roster this season, both on special teams. Rhys Lloyd graduated last year, and now freshmen Jason Giannini and Justin Kucek will take over his dual duties.

The kicker Giannini and the punter Kucek both played for the Gophers during the spring and played well enough to give Mason and their teammates plenty of confidence heading in to regular season play.

“I was pleasantly surprised with their performances this spring,” Mason said. “Their progress is evident, and I’m anxious to see how they perform.”

Simplified defense

Before last year’s Music City Bowl game against Alabama, Mason decided the defense could benefit from a simplified playbook and tried it out. It worked so well that this season, the defense is putting it into full effect.

The switch coincides with a changeover in the defensive coaching staff, with defensive secondary coach David Lockwood becoming the new defensive coordinator for the departed Greg Hudson.

Also new to the staff is defensive line coach Carey Bailey, who has sparked a fire in the eyes of their defensive front, defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery said.

“He brings a lot of intensity to the table,” Montgomery said. “He has us working mostly on our hands and staying active. Also, we are focusing a lot on our escapes at the line.”

Cupito’s maturation

The quarterback position has been the focus of a lot of criticism for the Gophers, with junior Bryan Cupito taking some “hits” according to Setterstrom and Eslinger.

But the word from the senior linemen and Mason is that Cupito has come a long way mentally from last year, thanks mostly to his biggest critic – himself.

“He’s the captain of our ship,” Setterstrom said. “If he does well, we know we’ll do all right.”

Michigan the favorite

The Wolverines were named the preseason Big Ten favorite by the media Monday, with Ohio State picked second and Iowa third.

Hawkeyes quarterback Drew Tate was named preseason offensive player of the year, and Buckeyes linebacker A.J. Hawk was preseason defensive player of the year.