PIGSKIN PREVIEW TAB Gophers feel growing pains
By Troy Young
; After taking a step or two forward and advancing to bowl games in consecutive seasons in 1999 and 2000, the Minnesota Gophers last season slid down endless chutes and ladders that led all the way to the basement of the Big Ten Conference.
Head coach Glen Mason can't promise a bowl game for Gophers fans this January (or even in December) but he hopes his team will be better. Then again, after finishing in a tie for 10th place in the 11-team Big Ten Conference, there is nowhere to go but up.
Considering their pool of youth, going up and growing up is exactly what the Gophers expect to do.
Youth -- but not necessarily inexperience -- will be a trademark of the 2002 Gophers, considering there are just 10 seniors on the entire roster.
"We're young, but if we're any good, we're going to be good for some time to come," Mason said.
For the first time in more than two years, all of Mason's highly-touted offensive recruits enter the season healthy, eligible and confident.
Junior quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq is the starter, and for the first time no one appears to be lurking in the shadows. As a true freshman, Abdul-Khaliq was academically ineligible. He split time with Travis Cole the past two seasons and admittedly never found a rhythm.
Now, finally, Abdul-Khaliq should get an opportunity to shine. "At the end of last season I finally got comfortable," he said. "I finally got the chance to show some of my ability. What I'm trying to do is start the season where I left off. If I can do that this season, it will be just fine."
It isn't as if Abdul-Khaliq is on an offensive oasis. The Gophers potentially could possess one of the Big Ten's most explosive offensive arsenals.
"We have some threats," said former Rochester Community Technical College star Antoine Burns, who will start at receiver, opposite of Jermaine Mays. "We have Marion (Barber III), Thomas (Tapeh) -- they're two great running backs -- we have Asad, who's a good quarterback, we have me and Mays on the outside, and of course, we're going to have (Ben) Utecht."
A loaded backfield
Tapeh, a junior, enters the season healthier than he's ever been as a Gopher. Barber, a sophomore and one of the Big Ten's fastest rising stars, will be the featured back. Even though he had 70 less carries last season than Tellis Redmon, Barber still gained 742 yards (6.3 average) and scored seven touchdowns. With Redmon gone, Barber expects a 1,000-yard season.
The void in the Gophers receiving corps left by Ron Johnson's departure to the NFL will be felt, but Mays and Burns appear ready. Mays was a starter in 2000, then redshirted last season. Burns was Johnson's complementary receiver, and had 30 catches for 470 yards and three touchdowns.
Another weapon Abdul-Khaliq will utilize is Ben Utecht, who Mason says could be the best tight end in college football. Utecht had 20 catches last season for 314 yards and five touchdowns. He'll become the favorite target in the middle of the field.
"Ben deserves a lot of balls," Abdul-Khaliq said. "He's one of those guys who doesn't get as many balls as he should. But when he gets the ball he makes things happen. I'll try to get him the ball more."
The line could be a weakness for the Gophers offense. Only two starters -- tackles Jake Kuppe and Jeremiah Carter -- return.
A maturing defense
The Gophers return eight starters on defense; that doesn't automatically equate to improvement. The Gophers gave up an average of 27.2 points per game last season, which ranked ninth in the Big Ten. More alarming, is that Minnesota gave up 31 points each to Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, 35 points to Purdue and 42 to Iowa.
Another disturbing trend was the Gophers finished ninth in the Big Ten for rushing defense, which had become a specialty for Minnesota in the late 1990s.
Of the eight returning starters, just one is a senior -- cornerback Mike Lehan. Sophomore linebacker Bradley Vance had a productive season as a freshman and is the team's greatest defensive prospect.
The Gophers, who finished 4-7, but only 2-6 in the Big Ten, had two three-game losing streaks last season.
"Last year, I thought, 'Oh man, the bottom could fall out,' " Mason said. "New coaching, young guys.... I thought we needed to get off to a good start, which we did not. But those kids hung in there, because they're made of the right stuff and they got better and better and better as the weeks went on."
Mason hopes that trend carries over into this season.
SCHOOL COLORS: Maroon and gold
COACH: Glen Mason, 16th season overall (85-96-1), sixth at Minnesota (26-32)
2001 RECORD: 4-7 (2-6 Big Ten, tied for 10th)
LAST BOWL: 2000 Micronpc.com Bowl, lost to North Carolina State 38-30
STADIUM: Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome (64,172)
RETURNING STARTERS: 5 offense, 8 defense, place kicker and punter
KEY PLAYERS: QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq, jr.; TE Ben Utecht, jr.; CB Mike Lehan, sr.; RB Marion Barber III, so.; RB Thomas Tapeh, jr.; OT Jake Kuppe, sr.; WR Antoine Burns, sr.; LB Phil Archer, jr.
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Ron Johnson, RB Tellis Redmon, C Derek Burns, FS Jack Brewer, DE Greg White, OT Matt Anderle, OG Akeem Akinwale
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING: Mason, on how he'd grade himself the first five years: "Let me tell you this, in my job, major college football, either you're good -- whatever it is the different measures are of good -- or you're gone. So, so far, so good, huh?"
Aug. 31: Southwest Texas State
Sept. 7: at Louisiana-Lafayette
Sept. 14: Toledo
Sept. 21: Buffalo
Sept. 28: at Purdue
Oct. 5: Illinois
Oct. 12: Northwestern
Oct. 19: at Michigan State
Nov. 2: at Ohio State
Nov. 9: Michigan
Nov. 16: Iowa
Nov. 23: at Wisconsin