With only nine seniors on the roster, and coming off a 7-5 season, the Gophers are certainly not generating conversation about a top 25 year and BCS invitation. Yet Minnesota is regarded as a possible surprise team in the Big Ten Conference, capable of winning six or seven games and making it to a bowl game.
Although the Gophers no longer have three super star players from last season, linemen Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom, and running back Laurence Maroney, coach Mason is optimistic about his offense. “We have enough pieces to the puzzle that I really think we will be good,” he said earlier this month.
The program has reached elite status with its offensive system. Minnesota is the only school in the country to both rush and pass for over 2,000 yards each season for the last seven years. The Gophers have been in the top 20 nationally in rushing yards per game since 2001 and top five the last three seasons. Last season the Gophers were third nationally in rushing at 273.1 yards per game. The Gophers are the first school in college football history to have two 1,000 yard rushers three consecutive seasons.
Cuptio’s career improvement has been impressive and Mason said his quarterback may have a “great” season. Cupito’s development, and the presence of outstanding receivers like Ernie Wheelright and Matt Spaeth, plus the loss of Maroney and Gary Russell as runners, means the Gophers are likely to pass more than in the past.
An intriguing development for the running game was the transfer a few weeks ago of sophomore Alex Daniels from linebacker to tailback. Daniels, 6 foot 3, 255, intrigued Mason with his athleticism in high school where he saw him run track and likened him to the race horse Seabiscuit. Daniels high school experience included tailback and Mason said the Ohio native has “all the potential in the world.”
The defense? “Defense is the whole story, I think,” Mason said. Prior to starting practice Mason said he was “confident” the defense will be better. Last week he said it again while admitting past defensive shortcomings included being “terrible” in third down situations where repeatedly the Gophers could not make stop the opposition. The Gophers gave up 29.0 points per game last season and four teams passed for over 300 yards against them.
Playmakers on defense probably include stocky safety Dominic Jones (5 foot 8, 190), hard-charging linebacker John Shevlin and sophomore end Steve Davis who Mason said “played remarkably well as a freshman.”