Gophers head football coach Glen Mason finished the 1997 season with many lingering questions. Beginning today, he hopes to find some answers when incoming freshmen report to practice, followed by the rest of the Gophers on Tuesday.
Enthusiasm is running high as Mason’s second season gets underway, but after a disappointing first season in which the team fell short of expectations and finished with a 3-9 record, Mason is hesitant to overestimate this year’s squad.
“I’ve got my concerns,” he said. “Even as we enter the August practice, there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. We solidified on defense, but there are still a lot of holes offensively.”
Mason has emerged this summer with what could be one of the team’s most successful recruiting classes in years.
“First of all, I was pleased with our recruiting class because we secured the in-state talent,” he said. “We also got some pretty good prospects from around the country.”
Most of Mason’s 1998 recruits were brought in to upgrade an offense that struggled throughout last season. Among the more notable names in the bunch are Jermaine Mays, an all-state receiver from Miami with 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash, and Asad Abdul-Khaliq, a highly-touted quarterback from Elizabeth, N.J.
However, Mason made no promises about the incoming freshmen, citing past mistakes in pre-evaluating talent.
“In past years, we brought in players we thought would make it right away, but they didn’t do anything for us,” he said. “And the guys we thought had no shot ended up panning out. It’s very hard to project how an individual player is going to do until he gets on the field.”
Once the Class of ’98 actually gets on the field, can they fill the void left by departed players — receiver Tutu Atwell, quarterback Cory Sauter and All-American defensive end Lamanzer Williams — as well as raise the Gophers’ current level of play?
“I’m confident we’ll get a better level of play this year,” said Mason.
Junior strong safety Tyrone Carter, an all-Big Ten selection last season, said this year’s squad has shown much more commitment to winning.
“The work ethic and dedication is definitely here, especially from the older guys,” Carter said. “It’s all about winning for us.”
Mason also forecasted changes with current players, the most notable being the move of outside linebacker Rufus Smith to defensive end. The move was made during spring practice to help compensate for the loss of Williams, who led the nation in sacks (18.5) and was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“We wanted to utilize Rufus’s skills at the position,” Mason said. “He seemed to fit in well at the spot, so I think that move is pretty set.”
By moving the 6-1, 230-pound Smith to the line, Mason could face the problem of having even more of an undersized defense than last year. However, he dismissed the notion of having serious problems with a smaller defensive unit.
“I don’t concern myself too much with the size of our players,” he said. “The type of defense we play relies more on mobility than size.”
Mason said his schemes will put plenty of pressure on returning cornerbacks Craig Scruggs and Jimmy Wyrick, who often found themselves in one-on-one coverage with the Big Ten’s top receivers. Carter believes the tandem will be up for the task.
“We’ve got full confidence in our corners,” he said. “They are going to have more help this year.”
While the defense showed its vulnerability against bigger teams last year, the Gophers were still able to minimize big plays with their ability to swarm to the ball.
“You’ve got to be able to stop the run in the Big Ten,” said Carter, who foresees little change in the current game plan.
Mason is counting on the minor changes on defense, plus the infusion of speed and talent on offense, to answer the team’s most nagging question: Can it overcome mediocrity?
That question can only be answered on the field.