It’s game time for Gophers ground giant

by Sarah Mitchell

Four years ago, St. Paul Johnson’s athletic director Karl Dickman watched Thomas Tapeh in physical education class intrigued by the sophomore’s natural athletic ability. But even Dickman could not have predicted what Tapeh would do with his size and speed.
The Liberian-born Tapeh’s definition of football differed from most Americans’ idea of the game. Now the redshirt freshman looks poised to dominate a game he learned just a presidency ago.
“We told him he was going to play real football and he was like, ‘What do you mean real football?'” Dickman said. “I said, ‘American football. We’re going to have you play real football and not the European or the soccer football.'”
A former football coach, Dickman realized Tapeh had unique physical gifts. He and Governors coach Jeff Plaschko tapped into Tapeh’s natural ability and found a football player.
During his senior campaign, Tapeh rushed for 1,845 yards on 208 carries (8.9 yards per carry). In the winter, Tapeh, a highly-sought after recruit, committed to the Gophers.
He redshirted last season, and a foot injury suffered during the last week of spring drills has delayed his anticipated collegiate debut. On Saturday, however, the heralded Tapeh will get the nod from Gophers coach Glen Mason, as Minnesota (1-0) hosts Ohio (0-1).
“I knew I’d have pressure from the start. All I can do is go out there and play hard,” Tapeh said.
“That’s what they ask of me. To play each down like it’s my last.”
Tapeh’s attitude might be what Minnesota’s running game needs. After one game (the Gophers beat Louisiana-Monroe 47-10 on Sept. 2), Minnesota’s running game was solid, but not flashy.
Against the Indians, the Gophers averaged 3.7 yards per carry. Sophomore Tellis Redmon did the brunt of the work, running for 101 yards on 27 carries. Since his arrival, Tapeh has been pegged as the one to pick-up the slack in such situations.
But those expectations might be a little premature. Gophers running back coach Vic Adamle said Tapeh is not the team’s best running back.
“Not as of right now, no. Will he be? Who knows,” Adamle said. “He’s got a lot of ability, but to say now he’s the best running back on the team, I wouldn’t say that.”
And all Adamle has seen of Tapeh has been in team practices. The way the freshman reacts in game situations will determine his future.
“We’ve had a lot of contact drills, but still no full-blown tackle,” Adamle said. “He hasn’t been tackled yet.”
With all the hype and no real tackles to rattle him, it would seem Tapeh would be running scared. But Adamle said otherwise.
“(There’s no pressure) from anybody other than the outside world, as I call it,” Adamle said. “Our inside world is me, (Tapeh), his teammates. We haven’t put any pressure on him.”
Dickman echoed his thoughts, saying Tapeh has remained unfazed by his popularity.
“I don’t think he feels anything. He’s a unique kid. He’s very humble,” Dickman said.
“If you asked him where football ranked in his priorities, it might not be in the top five.”
Football might not be high on his list of priorities, but Tapeh has attracted quite a crowd in the past four years.
But — like four years ago — only time and a little help from Minnesota’s offensive line can make Tapeh into a premiere running back.
“If you rush things they’ll never go the way you want them to. So, you take your time and work towards it,” Tapeh said.
“That’s how you get things done. Just do it. Good things don’t happen overnight.”

ù Gophers coach Glen Mason said sophomore running back Tellis Redmon and junior wide receiver Ron Johnson will handle kickoff returns against Ohio. Redmon and Johnson are filling in for senior wide receiver Antoine Henderson.
Henderson was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Henderson suffered the injury on a kick-off return against Louisiana-Monroe on the Gophers first possesion of the game.
Johnson, the Gophers top receiver, now runs the same risk. But Mason said using Johnson on returns is not his biggest concern.
“(I’m) probably more concerned about the ball going into the ground,” Mason said.

Sarah Mitchell covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected].