With all the excitement and hoopla surrounding the Minnesota Vikings as they prepare to kick off their season in a couple of weeks, a group of young men that is getting overlooked starts their season in the bustling metropolis of Murfreesboro, Tenn., Thursday night. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we're on the verge of another season of Minnesota Golden Gopher football, and in the fourth year of the Tim Brewster era, the team is at a bit of a crossroads.
Gone is all-everything wide receiver Eric Decker, now catching passes for the Denver Broncos, and the Gophers are going to have as many as nine new starters on the defensive side of the football. Most of the offense is back, but it's an offense that, without Decker, looked a bit lost for large portions of the 2009 seasons, culminating with a sleep-inducing 14-13 loss to Iowa State in the Insight Bowl.
The Gophers have got some talent, but things are going to have to really come together for them to make any noise in the Big Ten this year. With that in mind, these players are, in my opinion, the five biggest keys to the Gophers' success in 2010.
1) Adam Weber, QB
I know what most of you are saying, "Wow, the quarterback is the most important player on the team? Thanks, Captain Obvious! Never would have seen that coming." But this is Weber's fourth year as a starter with this team, and while he's come a long way from being the kid that was getting his brains beaten in when this team was 1-11 his freshman year, he's still maddeningly inconsistent at times. It appears that the Gophers' change from a spread offense his first two years to a more traditional offense in 2009 had a profound affect on Weber, and he had a lot of serious mechanical lapses last season as well, leading to bouts of inaccuracy.
This season, the Gophers need Weber to make some serious strides in his development. He needs to show that he can be in charge of this offense without the security blanket that Eric Decker provided him the past couple of seasons. He needs to show progress in his decision making abilities as well. The Gophers' offense must be better in 2010. . .it can't get worse, considering it was last in the Big Ten last year in nearly every meaningful category. . .and the man taking the snaps is the big key to that.
2) Troy Stoudermire, WR
I mentioned Eric Decker a couple of times when talking about Weber, and Stoudermire is going to be one of the guys that is called upon to replace a lot of Decker's production. He's the best play maker on the Gopher roster right now, and is the team's returning leader in both receptions and touchdowns. His skills as a kick returner mean that he'll have a lot of chances to make an impact on football games, but his impact needs to be felt in the receiving game. I'm not sure how many touches Stoudermire will get every Saturday, but you can be sure that the Gophers' coaching staff is going to make every effort to get the ball into his hands as frequently as possible, as he has an outstanding knack for making plays in space.
The offense needs a reliable receiving threat now that both Decker and Nick Tow-Arnett are no longer part of the team. Stoudermire is my bet for the guy that's going to step up and fulfill that role. . .or, at the very least, that the coaching staff is going to try to wedge into that role.
3) Michael Carter, CB
One of the many new starters on defense for the Gophers this year, Carter busted his tail to move up the depth chart last year as a true freshman, and is going to be expected to play a role in maintaining a Gopher pass defense that went from abysmal in 2007 and 2008 to the middle of the Big Ten rankings in 2009. He's got some big shoes to fill in trying to replace Marcus Sherels and Traye Simmons at cornerback, but his lineage says that he's up to it. . .after all, he is the cousin of former Gopher great and long time NFL veteran Tyrone Carter.
This sophomore corner is more than likely going to be asked to match up against the opposition's number one receiver every week and keep them in check because. . .well, do YOU want to see Ryan Collado (who will likely be the other starter) matching up against the Big Ten's best receivers every week? Yeah, neither do I. However, I think that Carter is up to the task, and will give opposing offensive coordinators something to game plan for every week.
4) Gary Tinsley, MLB
All three of the Gophers' starting linebackers from 2010 are in NFL camps right now, whether they were drafted or signed with teams as undrafted free agents. The trio of Nate Triplett, Simoni Lawrence, and Lee Campbell was one of the best that the U of M has seen in a very long time, and replacing all three of them is going to be a fairly sizable task. Tinsley has the size and strength needed to play middle linebacker at this level, and should be able to step in and be the quarterback of this defense. . .if he can stay out of trouble.
And therein lies the rub. Back in April, Tinsley was arrested for driving drunk on a moped. . .ON A MOPED, people. . .and fleeing from police (presumably at a relatively low rate of speed). Tinsley has a great deal of talent, but talent is meaningless if you're calling your coach to come bail you out of jail. Hopefully the better part of Tinsley's problems are behind him and he can focus on helping the Golden Gophers' defense.
5) D.J. Burris, C
The Gophers' offensive line was much maligned in 2009, and may have gotten more than their fair share of the blame for the offensive woes, but Burris is expected to step in at the center spot. . .as he did last season after the injury to Jeff Tow-Arnett. . .and make the calls for the offensive line. Burris has started 27 games over the course of his Gopher career, splitting his time between guard and center, and now he's going to be the definite starter at center this season from the word "go."
It's an old cliche that good offenses start up front, and if the Gophers want to be something other than the worst offense in the conference again in 2009, the front five really need to get their act together. The experience that Burris brings to the table should help them out significantly with that, particularly in light of the fact that it looks like the starting left tackle is going to be a redshirt freshman (Ed Olson). Here's hoping that Burris can be a steadying presence for this team.
And that's my viewpoint on things. Maybe some of you with a bit more Gopher football knowledge than I do have differing opinions on this one, but that's the way I see it.