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Daniels moves from defense to ease depth concern in backfield

By Dave Campbell

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the early stages of fall practice, there are many areas of uncertainty on the Minnesota football team.

One of those is in the backfield, where the early departures of Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell -- both 1,000-yard rushers last year -- have created a concern about depth.

Amir Pinnix begins the season as the featured runner, but he missed most of the spring session because of an ankle injury. Redshirt freshman Jay Thomas has not completely recovered from offseason knee surgery, and junior college transfer Brylee Callender is still raw. Justin Valentine is the returning fullback, and he might be given some snaps at tailback as well.

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"We'll have to see how they can collectively do as a group to pick up where we've performed the last couple of years," coach Glen Mason said.

Though the Gophers still believe they'll be able to run the ball effectively, even without All-Americans and four-year starters Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom blocking in front, the lack of proven, durable backs is clearly one issue that Mason is facing this fall.

That's why he moved sophomore linebacker Alex Daniels across the ball. Daniels, a 6-foot-3, 260-pounder from Ohio who was a highly ranked recruit, was in line to start at the middle spot. Now, he's behind Valentine at fullback.

"We have to get creative because we still want to run the football," Mason said.

Daniels didn't suit up this spring because of a broken arm and missed valuable practice time. That's another reason why the switch made sense to Mason.

"I'm going to see if we can get him on the field and utilize his talent. ... Unless I try, I don't know," the coach said.

And the winner is...

Tony Brinkhaus -- whose nickname, Bubba, befits his position -- will be the successor at center to Eslinger, who was awarded the Outland Trophy as the nation's top lineman last year.

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A tackle last season, Brinkhaus -- a junior who played at Bloomington Jefferson High School -- spent some time during spring practice at guard until being moved exclusively to center. Tyson Swaggert, a fifth-year senior who was Eslinger's backup last season, will be the left guard.

For Brinkhaus, the new position is not yet second nature. But he's confident that he'll be comfortable there by Aug. 31, when the Gophers play their first game at Kent State.

"It's just going to take hard work," Brinkhaus said. "Just reps and film."

No Owens

The list of 102 players who were in camp when the weekend began did not include Brandon Owens, a rising star at strong safety who suffered a career-ending shoulder injury last October while trying to make a tackle against Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson.

Owens, who would have been a junior this season, will still be involved with the program, though, and serve as a student assistant to the coaching staff.

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