Preseason spirits soaring, but questions aplenty for U

by Murali Balaji

Never mind the dropped passes. Forget the fumbles. If there is one thing that can be said about this year’s Gophers football team, it’s that optimism still reigns.
During Friday’s media day, posters and photos of the 1998 squad were distributed — a glamorous promotion of a team that hasn’t reached the .500 mark since 1990.
Meanwhile, coach Glen Mason unveiled his goals for the upcoming season, and officials used the event to showcase the recently renovated sports complex.
Everything in Bierman is new, as are half of the players on this year’s team. And in this case, the coaching staff are hoping that new might mean improved.
Mason is counting on 34 new players to come in and make a contribution to a team that fell by the wayside last season and went 3-9 overall.
But Mason was not overly optimistic, a tactic his predecessors heartily employed. Instead, the second-year coach dissected his team, laying down certain objectives which he hopes will turn around a struggling offense and a young defense:
Q: Who’s the Q?
Mason answered the Gophers’ most pressing question immediately — how to solidify the quarterback position.
“I know there is a perception that the U of M doesn’t have a starting quarterback,” he said. “That was just going on the results of the spring game, not spring practice.”
The job is currently up for grabs between junior Billy Cockerham and sophomores Ryan Keller and Andy Persby. Mason said the position is still wide open, but had some complimentary words for Persby, a St. Paul native.
“Attitude is so important,” he said. “[Andy] has got confidence and he’s excited to be here. It’s like I’m seeing a completely different player than last year.”
Mason announced that freshman quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq, one of the more highly-touted Gophers recruits, didn’t pass his academic tests and would not be eligible to play this season.
“He is very, very close to passing the test,” Mason said.
Abdul-Khaliq will reportedly enroll at the University in the fall, and Mason expects him to qualify for the 1999 season.
Won’t back down
Addressing the issue of running backs took a little more of the coach’s time — and his patience.
The main issue surrounding the team’s backfield has to do with the status of junior Byron Evans, who faces an August 25 court date for the alleged assault of his girlfriend. Mason refused to comment on the specifics of the situation.
“Everything has not been decided,” he said, trying to close the matter. “I just deal with our players who are on the team (and) ready to play. They are expected to act in a certain way.”
On a more positive note, Mason said he was pleased with the early performance of Arland Bruce, a transfer from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College who might figure prominently in the team’s mix of running backs.
“For what we’ve seen so far, he is an exciting guy,” Mason said. “He has got good quickness and ball skills.”
One of the team’s more scrutinized areas is at cornerback, where returning starters Jimmy Wyrick and Craig Scruggs are less than formidable defenders at 5-foot-9 each. However, Mason brushed off concerns that the two would be overmatched against some of the Big Ten’s bigger receivers.
“If you find a cornerback that has great size, speed, and ability, then you’ve found a guy who is going to be making millions playing on Sundays,” he said. “Would I like them bigger? Yeah, but if you look around the Big Ten at the other corners, our guys are not small at all.”
Looking up?
Mason touched on some other focal points on the offense, including the play-calling, which was criticized last season for being predictable and unimaginative. Mason also said the team must improve on its short-yardage and red-zone production.
“We’ve got to be far more creative than we have in the past,” he said. “We’ve got talent, but we’re not going to overpower anybody.”