Friday, July 24, 2009

Three Gopher Questions

Is it time for college football yet? WELL IS IT?!?!?!? I'm starting to get a wee bit excited for the upcoming season- and it's still 45 days away!! But at least we're getting closer to teams reporting for camps and getting something of substance to talk about. Big Ten media days are next week in Chicago, and while they probably won't be quite as wild as the SEC media days going on down in Bama this week, it'll still be good to have Big Ten players and coaches talking Big Ten football.
Until then, we'll fill this space with some questions- some rhetorical, some actual- about your Golden Gophers, the Big Ten, and college football as we head towards the 2009 season. Today, I've got a few queries about the Maroon and Gold...

I don't know about you, but with Hayo! Carpenter's arrival this week, I now have zero worries about the passing game. None. Zilch. Nada. We've now got Decker, Carpenter, senior Ben Kuznia and a bunch of young, talented kids to not only catch the ball, but do something with it once they grab it. And throwing to them is a pretty damn good quarterback in Adam Weber, even if all anybody wants to talk about in the conference is Terrelle Pryor, Daryll Clark, Juice Williams, and Ricky F*&^ing Stanzi (I think that's my new nickname for him). Let them gush about the other guys coming back, I trust Weber to run the offense and make good throws. He's certainly going to have a lot more weapons to throw to than last year, which is all good news.

But no matter how good the QB's and receivers, and no matter how many teams in the Big Ten adopt the spread, if you want to win here you've got to run the ball in October and November when the temperatures drop and the winds howl. So can the Maroon and Gold move the chains on the ground? I'm not looking for Glen Mason-level of rushing excellence, just something where we can move the ball effectively and keep defenses honest. Losing explosive frosh Hasan Lipscomb definitely hurts, but as I've said and will keep saying, there is still talent at tailback, and the underrated and unheralded group will make some big strides this year.
The key is going to be on the offensive line, and whether they can open some holes and hold blocks for the tailbacks and quarterbacks (hello MarQueis Gray!!!). Last year the line was a train-wreck, as you had an inexperienced group trying to learn an entirely new system that none of them were really equipped to handle.

Well this year they should be helped by three things:
1) A year of learning and getting their a$$es handed to them can only help
2) Two talented new starters in Notre Dame transfer Matt Carufel at guard, and massively ginourmous 6'7 375 pound JC transfer RT Jeff "WHACHOOTALKINBOUT" Willis (seriously, there are dump trucks smaller than this guy)
3) New o-coordinator Tim Davis going back to a pro-style, straight-ahead offense and running game.
It's very possible this unit goes from one of the conference's worst in 2008 to one of the best in 2009.

This group is the key to the defense, and if the defense wants to be good, and even great, these guys need to step up. Even with the loss of Tremaine Brock, I'm excited for what the secondary can bring with Big Play Trey Simmons, Marcus Sherels and Scony transfer Kim Royston. Same with linebacker, as returning starters Simoni Lawrence and Lee Campbell lead a very talented group. But I can't show the same excitement for the D-line because I have no idea what to expect. Willie Van Der Steeg was a HUGE factor last year, as he can almost out of nowhere to have an All-Big Ten senior year. Who's filling that void as a monster pass-rusher? The coaches loved what senior Cedric McKinley showed in the spring, but he's never showed it on the field in the fall to this point.

Even IF McKinley's that guy, who's going to stop the run? Who's getting into the backfield and wrecking havoc? I'm not expecting a bunch of All-American performances from a group of guys who have never even shown All-conference potential yet, and because of the returning talent in the back seven, they don't need to be. But what we DO need the D-line to be is disruptive and active and some kind of a positive factor. Whether it's McKinley or one of the other guys, somebody has to be a pass-rushing force off the edge that demands a double-team. If we can get that, this defense could be top-of-the league good.

There is nothing in college football more delicate than a quarterback controversy- everybody's supposed to say and do the right things, but deep down, the incumbent starter is going to be upset he gets yanked, and so might some of the vets who've played with him. It's one thing when it happens because of injury- think Tom Brady taking over for Drew Bledsoe way back in the day in New England- because then the young guy has a chance to prove on the field how good he is and that the team can continue to roll with him. But the rare and more difficult transition is when the younger QB takes over for the veteran because he's just better or the incumbent is just not good enough. This rarely goes well, but it did last year at Ohio State when after the USC blowout, Pryor took the reigns from fifth year senior Todd Boeckman not because Boeckman was hurt, but because he and the offense sucked (also Beanie Wells getting hurt was a huge blow).

Now I'm not saying Weber is going to be terrible this year- quite the opposite, I think and hope he'll be at least competent and hopefully pretty damn good. Maybe Weber and the offense is so good that no matter what Gray does he's not going to unseat Weber this year. But I think that's a BIG maybe. Maybe I don't believe in Weber enough, or maybe/probably I believe in Gray's ability and potential too much, but I see a QB controversy brewing before the season is over. I believe Weber's ceiling as a player is a little above what he showed last year: competent and can make plays if he's given time and has playmakers around him, but he's not going to take over a game or be somebody who the opposing D gameplans for. Gray, on the other hand, is one of, or perhaps even THE most talented QB to ever step on campus (which I know isn't saying much considering the Gophs haven't had a quarterback taken in the NFL draft in over a decade). Coach Brewster is on record as saying Gray is going to get on the field this fall, and he WILL be out there in the opener against Air Force. He and the coaching staff understand just how unreal this kid is, and that even as a freshman, he's so talented they need to get him on the field. I just see Weber struggling at times, and Gray doing nothing but good and exciting things, and by the end of October, the QB controversy will be on. Will Brewster stick to his three-year starter, or will he make a move for the present and future and put in Gray?

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