Big Ten Preview: Gophers set for golden season


If you haven’t noticed, Tim Brewster is fired up.

Maybe it’s the return of offensive duo Adam Weber and Eric Decker that has Brewster, the Minnesota head coach, especially amped about the upcoming season.

Maybe it’s new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch — who comes to the Twin Cities after spending eight years in the NFL under such coaches as Mike Shanahan and Brian Billick — and his all-encompassing offensive system that has arguably the Big Ten’s most vocal head coach ready for his team’s Sept. 5 opener against Syracuse.

But most assuredly it’s his brand-new, 50,000-seat, on-campus outdoor stadium that has him brimming with pride. In fact, it took him only 15 words to bring up TCF Bank Stadium in his press conference at Big Ten media days in Chicago.

On the surface, it’s easy to see why Brewster is so excited for his third year at the helm of Minnesota’s program. Eighteen starters return from last year’s 7-6 campaign and the team’s highly regarded 2008 recruiting class is finally starting to show some life.

“We have the pieces right now, but we just have to figure out the puzzle and put everything together,” said Decker, who had 84 catches for 1,074 yards and seven touchdowns last season.

Decker’s return to campus had to come as a relief to Weber, the third-year starter who would have been weaponless without his go-to target. After Decker’s 1,000-plus yard season, no one registered more than 331 yards for the Gophers last year.

Weber will need all the weapons he can get in Fisch’s quasi-West Coast offense, which will feature a little bit of everything. Of course, having Decker — who Brewster calls one of the best receivers in the country — as a security blanket should help the transition to Fisch’s attack.

Brewster also brought in Kevin Cosgrove as a co-defensive coordinator, but the head coach said little has changed schematically for the Gophers’ defense.

Though Decker will alleviate most problems in the passing game, Minnesota’s putrid running attack is a different story. The Golden Gophers ranked last in the Big Ten and 104th in the country with only 103.8 rushing yards per game last season — their lowest total since 1983.

After tearing his ACL last season, Duane Bennett is expected to give Minnesota’s backfield, which will also feature DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley, more stability and explosiveness.

On defense, Brewster seemed pleased with the team’s run-stuffing potential, noting the presence of senior defensive tackles Eric Small and Garrett Brown and senior linebacker Lee Campbell, who was Minnesota’s leading tackler a year ago.

With that said, Brewster’s team will need all the defensive firepower it can get, as it faces arguably the toughest schedule of any team in the conference, which Brewster said is “to his liking.”

Playing Ohio State, Penn State, and Iowa all on the road — along with hosting Cal, Air Force, Michigan State, Illinois, and Wisconsin at home — Minnesota could improve its product on the field but actually have a worse record.

The Gophers can only hope to get off to a start comparable to last year. After beginning the season 7-1, Brewster’s squad went 0-5 down the stretch, including Iowa’s 55-0 undressing of Minnesota to close out the Metrodome for good.

“Iowa just owned us,” Decker said. “At the end of the year last year, guys got fatigued. We had some injuries, and I think that’s one thing this year we’re a lot better at, is the depth on our team.”

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