Building blocks in place for solid 2002 season

John R. Carter

After Minnesota’s football team finished with a 4-7 record this season, it’s doubtful any athletics directors will be dialing 1-800-Glen-Mason to fill head-coaching vacancies this offseason.

A last place finish in the Big Ten won’t make the Gophers fifth-year football head man the hot commodity he has been in recent years.

Following an 8-4 campaign in 1999, Mason interviewed for jobs at Louisiana State and Michigan State even before leading his team to the Sun Bowl.

Mason turned down both offers, then signed a seven-year, $7 million contract in June of 2000. But following an appearance in the Micronpc.com Bowl later that year, Mason pursued the coaching vacancy at his alma mater Ohio State.

After losing out in the race for the Buckeyes job, Mason vowed he would never again pursue offers from other schools.

For the first time since 1998-99 offseason, Mason likely won’t be distracted by queries from other universities. Instead, he’ll be able to concentrate on his quest to make Minnesota a consistent winner.

And by the sounds of Mason after the Wisconsin game, he’s ready for next season now.

“I really do think we’ll be better,” Mason said.

Mason’s right, the young Gophers should improve next season. Minnesota returns 15 of its 22 starters in 2002.

On offense, the departure of Ron Johnson ñ Minnesota’s career leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns – leaves a huge void at receiver. Antoine Burns, Tony Patterson, Ben Utecht and the return of Jermaine Mays, must make up for Johnson’s production.

Minnesota’s offensive line takes the biggest hit by graduation. Center Derek Burns, left guard Akeem Akinwale and right tackle Matt Anderle are gone. Three-year starting guard Ryan Roth is gone as well.

The door is now open for new faces such as Mike Nicholson, Joe Quinn, Mark McElroy and Matt McIntosh.

“We have to put together an offensive line,” Mason said. “But I see some young (back-ups) who have improved a lot this year.”

One thing the Gophers can look forward to is their running game. Tellis Redmon, Marion Barber III and Thomas Tapeh, who combined to rush for 1,971 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, are all slated to return.

“We have three darn good running backs,” Mason said. “I think you’ll probably see more than one of them in the backfield at a time.”

While the game plan at running back includes more than one option, the quarterback situation is finally set in stone.

The Gophers are Asad Abdul-Khaliq’s team now. After vying for playing time with senior Travis Cole over the last two seasons, Abdul-Khaliq now becomes the clear-cut No. 1 man.

Abdul-Khaliq, who passed for just 1,391 yards this season, got in a groove the final two games, throwing for 584 yards and six touchdowns.

On the other side of the ball, Minnesota will suffer without the leadership ñ and 147 tackles ñ safety Jack Brewer brought to the team.

Besides Brewer, however, the losses are minor. Defensive end Greg White ñ team leader in sacks (4.5) and tackles for a loss (eight) ñ will be missed. But White suffered a down season after recording six sacks and 15 tackles for a loss the year before.

Other than Brewer and White, The Gophers lose linebacker Jimmy Henry, who started just six games.

Mason is confident another year for the other eight starters and the many reserves will serve the Gophers well.

“We had issues on defense,” Mason said. “And I’m not saying we’re going to be bona fide at every position. But the kids who played this year will be better next year.

“We have more young talent that was redshirted this year and will get a chance (next season). There will be more people in the mix defensively.”

While Mason is convinced the Gophers will be better, the question arises of whether or not they’ll return to a bowl game.

Minnesota begins next season with four nonconference games, which means the Gophers need to win seven games to become bowl eligible.

But consider this: the four non-Big Ten opponents are Southwest Texas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Toledo (minus star running back Chester Taylor) and Buffalo.

The four teams combined for a record of 18-25 this season with eight victories coming from Toledo.

After a mild nonconference slate, Minnesota travels to Purdue and then hosts Illinois and Northwestern ñ two teams hit hard by graduation.

Next October, Minnesota could be 6-1 and on the verge of a bowl bid rather than struggling for air at 3-4.

That’s assuming Mason doesn’t take any more phone calls.

Extra Points

ï Johnson was honored with the Bronko Nagurski Award as the team’s most valuable player at the annual postseason banquet Monday night.

Johnson and Redmon were given the Bruce Smith Award for the team’s top offensive players.

Brewer won the Carl Eller Award as best defensive player, while Barber was given the Bobby Bell Award as team’s most outstanding special teams player.

ï Abdul-Khaliq and cornerback Mike Lehan were voted team captains for the 2002 season on Monday.

ï Punter Preston Gruening was named Big Ten special teams player of the week for his efforts against Wisconsin.

Gruening had five punts, averaging 45 yards, including a 64-yarder in the Gophers win. He also completed a four-yard pass on a fake field goal to Tapeh, which set up the game-winning touchdown.