U football begins search for success

by Murali Balaji

For a long list of questions that need answering — as if final exams weren’t enough — look no further than the 1998 Minnesota football team.
This season, the Gophers will try to put together their first winning season since 1990, despite numerous concerns on both offense and defense. If anything, they hope to avoid repeating last year, when they started the season 2-1 and finished with a 3-9 overall record.
Head coach Glen Mason is entering his second season with the team, and despite high expectations from the fans and media, he will probably need another year to turn the program around from its losing ways.
With its best recruiting class in recent years, the Gophers are hoping to build a nucleus of young players to add to the veteran leadership of players like Tyrone Carter, Rufus Smith and Ben Hamilton.
If the Gophers show signs of life and even modest improvement in 1998, Mason’s second season with the team can be viewed as a success.
Here is a position-by-position analysis of this year’s team:

With freshman Asad Abdul-Khaliq out of the picture because of academic ineligibility, there will be an ongoing battle for the No. 1 QB job between junior Billy Cockerham and sophomores Ryan Keller and Andy Persby. Don’t place your money on any of them being the starter for the entire season. Mason is high on Persby, who is more of a pro-style passer, but Cockerham will get the benefit of having played last season. Keller is still learning the system after transferring from Kentucky prior to last season. This position is definitely the Gophers’ most glaring weakness offensively.

The biggest question in the offensive backfield is who will start at the halfback position this season. Thomas Hamner, who was in Mason’s doghouse for part of last season because of (what?), will look to reclaim his starting spot. Hamner is more motivated than ever to have a productive year, especially when you consider that he can make himself eligible for the NFL draft after the season.
Byron Evans’ legal troubles — he faces an Aug. 25 court date for the alleged assault of a girlfriend — are still unresolved, and he has not been consistent enough in his career to warrant a starting role. Transfer Arland Bruce could be the guy to watch. At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, he is not very big, but his running style makes him a perfect fit for an offensive scheme that will not create too many holes. Bruce could become the big-play specialist the team has lacked in recent years.

Wide receivers coach Vic Adamle says that there will be a new weapon in the Gophers’ arsenal: the fade pattern. Considering that the fade is one of the simplest routes in football, it is a wonder how the Gophers did not attempt a single one in 1997. One reason might be that the three top receivers from last season were no taller than 5-foot-11.
This year, things are looking up — in size, that is. 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Elvin Jones figures to become a significant part of the passing game this season, especially in the red zone. Freshmen Ron Johnson (6-3) and Jermaine Mays (6-0) could also make an impact; both were very impressive in camp.
The tight end position is not going to make anybody jump with excitement, but junior Alex Hass will provide a big body to help open up some running lanes.
This has probably been one of the team’s most unnoticed weaknesses. Center Ben Hamilton is an all-Big Ten performer, but questions remain about who will surround him to provide effective pass- and run-blocking. Give the Gophers credit for trying to beef up their front five by bringing in 1997 transfer Vinnie Xanthos (300 pounds) and 1998 community college transfer Terrence Floyd (315 pounds), both of whom could start at guard and tackle, respectively. Senior Jon Albrecht and junior Pat Hau are two returning starters who could provide some stability, but neither of them are starting at the positions they played in 1997. If this line does not jell by the first few games, the team could find themselves repeating the same offensive woes they suffered last season.

After emerging as a team strength last season, this group must find a way to fill the void left by All-American defensive end Lamanzer Williams, who led the nation with 18.5 sacks. Outside linebacker Rufus Smith has been moved to end in order to compensate for the loss of Williams, but at 235 pounds, Smith is hardly the prototypical every-down defensive lineman. Senior Antoine Richard and junior Josh Rawlings will be back at the defensive tackle spots, but neither of them are pass-rushers, either. Look out for junior Jon Michals, who has the size (6-foot-4, 261 pounds) to become a disruptive presence at the other defensive end spot.

Linebacker Parc Williams is a preseason candidate for the Butkus Award — although that honor will probably go to Ohio State’s Andy Katzenmoyer — and is still one of the most underrated linebackers in the Big Ten. Williams, a senior, gives the defensive unit a veteran presence on the left side. Sophomore Sean Hoffman was solid last season, and could develop into a legitimate run-stuffer in the middle of the defense.
Transfer Curtese Poole is a player to keep an eye on. At 6-foot-2 and 231 pounds, Poole is a mobile outside linebacker who can also drop back into coverage. He will probably start on the right side, giving the team much-needed insurance should Rufus Smith falter against the run. Sophomores Ben Mezera and Justin Hall, a converted fullback, will provide depth at the position.

Skim through the roster of defensive backs on the team, and you will notice a missing component: size. Mason insists that the lack of size in his secondary is not a concern, but in a conference known for big receivers, the Gophers’ defensive backs could be in big trouble. All-Big Ten strong safety Tyrone Carter (5-foot-9) will be the mainstay of the group, and his primary responsibility will be to help stop the run. Senior free safety Keith Dimmy may surprise people with his skills, but his lack of starting experience could hinder him early on in the season. Cornerbacks Jimmy Wyrick and Craig Scruggs will be the key to success in 1998. At 5-foot-9, neither is the big, physical cornerback that more and more college teams are looking for. Watch for Dimmy and nickelback Fred Rodgers to help out the corners more on obvious passing downs. Transfer Clorenzo Griffin could also play into the equation with his size (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) and speed (4.39 in the 40-yard dash).
Mason admitted that the team did not pay the kicking and punting game as much attention as it warranted last season. With All-America candidate Adam Bailey returning at place kicker, the Gophers can concentrate on evaluating the punter position. Junior Ryan Rindels, who averaged 40.4 yards per punt last season, has the inside track on the spot, but junior Steve Kemph may get a few looks during the season. With Tutu Atwell gone, the Gophers will likely utilize Luke Leverson and Arland Bruce as their primary punt returners, while giving the nod to Tyrone Carter on kickoff returns. If the trio can produce the way last year’s returners did (first in Big Ten with 24.6 yards per kick return, second in Big ten with 12.9 yards per punt return), this unit should be fine.