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Gophers return familiar faces

Utecht healthy, 'U' happy spring practice arrives

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota tight end Ben Utecht walked into the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex Tuesday and couldn't wipe the smile off his face.

"I feel great," Utecht said as the Gophers began spring practice. "Everybody is completely healthy. The attitude around here is very confident and very positive. We have so many seniors and so many guys coming back that I think this could be the big turnaround season."

Coach Glen Mason thinks his team can improve on last year's performance, too. The Gophers started out hot, going 7-1, then lost four straight games before beating Arkansas in the Music City Bowl.

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"We want to be as good as we can as fast as we can," Mason said. "I feel as good about this spring practice as any spring practice since I've been here. Why? Because we're returning so many players."

Mason said 90 players will take part in spring practice, including 16 returning starters -- eight each on offense and defense.

Along with Utecht, the Gophers bring back quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq, a trio of talented running backs -- Marion Barber III, Thomas Tapeh and Terry Jackson -- and wide receiver Aaron Hosack at their skill positions.

"We've got three guys who have proven they can perform pretty well at the Big Ten level," Mason said of his running backs. "So the more ways we can utilize them the better off we're going to be. Not to sound negative, but my number-one goal is to keep them all healthy."

Tapeh has missed time with various foot and leg injuries while Barber, who ran for 742 yards and scored seven touchdowns as a true freshman in 2001, missed all but two games of 2002 after injuring his hamstring just before the season started.

"You take a guy like Marion Barber. He pulled a muscle in half speed drill the first day last year," Mason said. "If that can be avoided ... and we've taken measures to do that. This year he's done more stretching than a ballet performer. And hopefully it will pay off."

Jackson, who started 2002 third on the depth chart behind Barber and Tapeh, had a breakout season, running for 1,317 yards and six touchdowns. Tapeh, who alternated between halfback and fullback, added 806 yards rushing and seven touchdowns.

The other wide receiver spot is expected to be filled by junior college transfer Paris Hamilton, whom Mason has high hopes for.

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"My first chance to see him will be today," Mason said Tuesday. "But I know there's been a lot of publicity about him. Even our players are buzzing a little bit because they're allowed to go out there and throw the ball around and all that."

Hamilton said he's ready to step in as Minnesota's deep threat.

"That's the role I've been playing," he said. "So if that's the role I have here it will be nothing different."

While Minnesota has 16 starters returning on offense and defense, special teams is another story. Mason lost kicker Dan Nystrom and punter Preston Gruening to graduation in 2002.

"We had the luxury of having the same two guys handle those duties for four straight years, and now we have to go out and find somebody else," Mason said. "And believe me, we're looking."

Junior Ryan Duffy will come into spring practice as the Gophers' top kicker, while redshirt freshman Pete Ross will try to become the team's new punter.

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