Mason is happy with Gophers’ progress

Todd Zolecki

Glen Mason measures success in degrees. As the new Gophers football coach, he expects nothing less than a complete 180 degree turnaround. But for now, Mason is just happy to see a small turn in the right direction.
He witnessed a degrees-worth of difference during the last month of spring practice. The Gophers, coming off a 4-7 season and the resignation of Jim Wacker, made some strides in all areas.
That’s no small accomplishment for a team with a new coaching staff that holds different philosophies than Wacker.
“What I told the players is that we’re better than when we started,” Mason said. “But it’s where we’re going to be on Aug. 7 (the first day of practice) because we have a long way to go.”
Mason had four objectives this month: evaluate the team’s talent, try new things on offense and defense, improve the fundamentals and look better than when the Gophers started.
Spring practice ended Saturday during the spring game at the Metrodome. The offense defeated the defense 41-31 using a scoring system devised by Mason.
The offense earned points by scoring touchdowns, field goals and making first downs. The defense made points by forcing turnovers, scoring touchdowns, forcing the offense to punt and not allowing first downs during a series.
A few big plays highlighted the game. Quarterback Billy Cockerham, running out of the option, took off down the sideline for a 96-yard score. Cockerham rushed 10 times during the game for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Verdis Webb III scored on a 43-yard touchdown run.
The Gophers ran the ball most of the game, which is a preview of things to come this fall.
“I keep saying that with the advent of the eight-man front, it’s awfully hard to run, and I’m committed to have at least a decent running game,” Mason said. “So you have to have some way to take care of the extra guy the (defense) puts up there.”
Perhaps the only play to rival Cockerham’s run didn’t end up in the final box score. Free safety Crawford Jordan intercepted a pass in the endzone and ran it back for a touchdown. Jordan dove into the endzone from about the 3-yard line before the play was called back for a penalty.
The final score didn’t really matter. Mason is glad to see nobody got injured and everybody seems to have the right attitude to be a winner.
“We went through a lot of tough days, and 95 percent of these guys made it every day,” he said. “We didn’t have one single guy quit. I think that’s a real testimony to the players who played before I got here.”
Senior quarterback Cory Sauter noticed a different attitude this spring than from years past.
He saw a more aggressive coaching style — a staff that made players get physical and hit more, and that made practice as stressful as possible.
“They want to see how you’re going to react in a game situation,” Sauter said. “If things go bad, they want to see what’s going to happen to you. They want somebody they can depend on. Are you going to make another mistake or not?”
Mason said he saw plenty of mistakes, but he understands it’s part of the adjustment period.
Sauter said it’s like going to school.
“It’s just a thing you do,” he said. “You just learn new things. It’s good for the mind, and it keeps you on your toes.”
The first few practices were tough for Sauter. He had to learn a whole new system, which has almost no carry-over from Wacker’s passing friendly offense.
“We’re just holding together because we don’t know what to expect,” Sauter said. “We’ve got new coaches, and right now we’re anxious to begin the season. We’re starting to learn and catch on. This summer we’ll work on it so when practices start we’ll know what to do.”
The Gophers open the season Aug. 30 at Hawaii.

GAME SUMMARY

Offense 3 19 6 2 11 — 41Defense 9 10 6 3 3 — 31

Offensive scores:
— Cockerham 96 run (Scanlan kick)
— Sauter 2 run (Bailey kick)
— FG Bailey 42
— Webb III 43 run (kick failed)
— FG Bailey 38
— Cockerham 5 run (McManus kick)