Gophers to start practicing with optimism

Dan Miller

Minnesota football players will lumber onto the Bierman Fields today for their first practice of the 2004 season.

After finishing last season with 10 wins – their most since 1905 – defensive end Darrell Reid said the Gophers like the feel of the strangely cool August weather.

“The feeling in the air is great,” the Gophers’ co-captain said. “I mean, I think everyone in Minnesota gets the feeling that because of what we have coming back it’s going to be special.”

What the Gophers have coming back is formidable.

Last season, junior running back Marion Barber III and sophomore Laurence Maroney were the third duo in Big Ten history to each amass 1,000 yards rushing. The Gophers 2003 rushing total of 3,759 yards is fourth best in the Big Ten record book.

Both running backs are listed as top-15 rushers in the nation by The Sporting News and are considered one of the best running back duos in the country.

The Gophers lose a couple players on a young and improved defense, and Mason calls his offensive line the best he has coached.

“Everybody on the team is excited because of the talent we have returning,” Minnesota co-captain Rian Melander said.

The Gophers are ranked 23rd in the ESPN/USA Today college football preseason poll, but they share the spot with Purdue as the fifth and sixth Big Ten teams ranked in the nation’s top 25.

During the annual Big Ten Media Day in Chicago last Wednesday, media members picked Michigan as the conference favorite. Ohio State and Iowa were second and third respectively. (Only the top three teams were announced.)

“You have teams in the Big Ten like Michigan and Ohio State who have built traditions,” Reid said. “We have to earn that kind of respect this year so that next year (at the Big Ten Media Day) the so-called experts will say, ‘Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota.’ “

The Gophers’ potent offense lost its ringleader Asad Abdul-Khaliq to graduation, and untested sophomore quarterback Bryan Cupito is expected to take the reigns.

“Yes, our quarterback is gone,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “There was a big question mark going into spring practice … (but) I thought Bryan Cupito performed very, very well at spring practice and he is the type of quarterback that is a very accurate passer.”

Mason is coming off the best season at Minnesota, and has the Gophers ranked in a preseason poll for the first time since 1969. But his team thinks they still have something to prove.

“We won more games than Michigan last year and we have more guys returning,” Reid said. “But we have always been the underdog. We’ve got guys who go from the bottom to the top … We know we’re a good team.”

Instant replay

A major topic of discussion in Chicago was the Big Ten’s decision to experiment with instant replay this season.

Dave Parry, the Big Ten coordinator of officials, said the Big Ten’s replay system will be a tweak of the National Football League’s current system.

A technical adviser will sit in the booth during games and will double check the officials’ calls using television replays. If there is an obvious mistake, the adviser will hit a button that will alert all the officials on the field. The referee will use a phone on the sideline to discuss the correct call.

Overturning a call will happen only with “indisputable evidence” and will not include judgment calls like holding, false starts and roughing the passer.

Parry said he hopes the entire process won’t extend longer than a minute.

“Our bottom line is justice,” Parry said. “Let’s get it right.”

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said while the Big Ten prides itself in tradition, the conference “continues to evolve.”

“It will be a little bit of an anomaly for us to be experimenting, certainly,” he said. “But I think that we’re a conference that takes pride in participating in change. I don’t know what will come of the experiment.”