Question and answer

This season’s opening kickoff is still three weeks away, but Minnesota’s football team is in full gear. Coach Glen Mason and the Gophers have high hopes for 2003 largely in part to a healthy returning offense, including quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq.

TBy Brett Angel The image is still fresh in his mind.

Minnesota football coach Glen Mason watched in practice as a young place kicker struggled to split the uprights even from the three-yard line.

“I remember thinking we’ve got to stop this thing,” Mason said. “It was embarrassing. The kid couldn’t make an extra point.”

That was four years ago and the kid was Dan Nystrom, now the Big Ten’s all-time leader in career field goals (71) and points (367). After a stellar career at Minnesota, Nystrom left to pursue a job in the NFL.

Mason and the Gophers, meanwhile, are left with a sizeable void in their kicking game – a void Minnesota’s coach is hoping can be filled by another young, unproven prospect. He just isn’t sure which one it will be.

“No answers, just questions to this point,” Mason said.

Ryan Donahue leads the list of candidates auditioning for Nystom’s old job.

Donahue spent the 2001 season as a redshirt freshman at Iowa, where he backed up last year’s Lou Groza Award winner Nate Kaeding, who Donahue considers the best kicker in the country.

After realizing his chances of earning a starting spot at Iowa were slim, Donahue transferred to Los Angeles Valley Junior College, where he worked with former UCLA All-American kicker Chris Sailer.

But after Minnesota defensive coordinator Greg Hudson and running backs coach Vic Adamle saw him in a workout, Donahue was offered a scholarship and now finds himself with another shot at playing in the Big Ten.

“They said there was an open position and they were looking for me to be the guy,” Donahue said. “So, that’s what I’m trying to do. Just put together good practices and be the guy.”

The Gophers currently have three players competing for place kicking duties and two more, Mark Rivers and Dan Ness, trying out for punter after Preston Gruening’s departure.

But Donahue, the only kicker on Minnesota’s roster receiving a scholarship, says it’s basically between himself and freshman walk-on Zach Schauf for place kicker.

“He’s very competitive and especially as a true freshman shows a lot of maturity,” Donahue said. “He’s shown a good strong leg and a pretty good mental game too.”

Team practices started Wednesday and Adamle said at this point both the place kicking and punting jobs remain wide open.

“We’ve only been through three practices,” Adamle said. “The consistency level is what’s going to win the job.”

Consistency under pressure. The kicking game is one of the team’s biggest question marks heading into the season and players and coaches alike are anxious to get a glimpse of what’s in store.

For Donahue and Schauf, that means kicking under constant surveillance.

“Coaches have been watching us a lot, putting pressure on us in practice,” Schauf said.

But that’s nothing compared to what they will face on Saturdays this fall with thousands of fans watching their every move.

“This kid told me (Friday), ‘Coach, you make me nervous,’ ” Mason said. “I told him to get used to it because I plan on going to the games.”

Saturday’s afternoon practice was the first time kickers worked with the first-string special teams unit. Adamle said he would hold his judgment on his kicking prospects until after seeing that workout.

When asked if he enjoyed the challenge of finding a new kicker after working with Nystrom for four seasons, Adamle was emphatic in his response.

“It’s not fun,” he said. “I like it a lot better when you know what you’re getting.”

Brett Angel covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]

Senior wide receiver Aaron Hosack salivates just at the thought of the two- and three-running back sets Minnesota’s football team plans to implement this season.

“We’re not taking a back seat, Hosack said. “Obviously, our running game is our forte. You can guarantee that teams will be putting 10 guys in the box, leaving man-on-man coverage for the receivers. Oh, hell yeah that makes me drool.”

Three running backs figure heavily into the Gophers’ offense this season. Terry Jackson II is coming off a 1,300-yard season, Thomas Tapeh finally approached his pre-college billing and Marion Barber III averaged 6.3 yards per carry in 2001 before being granted a medical redshirt last season with a hamstring injury.

But most of the important elements remain and one has been supplemented for a passing game which finished ninth in the Big Ten last season.

Hosack’s 649 receiving yards led the team in 2002. Averaging 22.4 yards per reception a season ago, the junior-college transfer’s big-play ability figures to be imperative to a run-heavy offense.

Gophers co-captain Ben Utecht caught six touchdowns at tight end for the team last year, despite battling injury throughout the season.

Both Utecht and fellow captain quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq begin this season with hopes of a healthy 2003.

Abdul-Khaliq continued to improve last season, tossing for over 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns on 11 interceptions. The fifth-year senior also represents a fourth running threat out of the backfield, scoring five touchdowns on his feet last year.

The condition of those feet should bode well for the Gophers’ passing game this year as well.

“I haven’t felt this healthy since the first half of the Purdue game (Sept. 28) last season,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “Somebody rolled on my ankle and messed it up pretty bad. It was never 100 percent again until this summer.

“Ben Utecht is healthy, and everybody is 100 percent now.”

Forget Paris?

After nabbing top junior-college wide receiver Paris Hamilton in the offseason, the passing game was dealt a blow this summer when he hurt his leg “playing around” in summer workouts.

The athletic junior from Tyler Junior College in Texas underwent knee surgery in mid-July. The doctors haven’t been able to pinpoint even a hopeful return date as of yet.

“They haven’t told me anything (about my return date),” Hamilton said. “I’ve just got to go through rehab one day at a time. I haven’t been thinking about not playing this year or playing this year.”

Coach Glen Mason laments that redshirting a junior-college transfer like Hamilton is not an option. But the Gophers’ headman has all the confidence in his medical staff to get him prepared to contribute as soon as possible.

For now, Hamilton has been limited to running “straight up and down” and avoiding cuts.

With a team-best 4.5-second 40-yard dash time and 24.0 yards-per-catch average in junior college, Hamilton is sure to join Hosack in stretching defenses when he heals.

As for now, all he can do is run and stretch his legs. The catching will come, though.

“Things will be better,” Hamilton said confidently.

If his prediction holds true, so should the Gophers’ offense.

Aaron Blake covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]