1 - This offseason we have heard a lot about establishing the run, pounding the rock and becoming more physical along the offensive line. Your thoughts on Duane Bennett's 7 carries for 65 yards DeLeon Eskridge's 9 carries for 26.
JG - I personally found Bennett to be much more explosive and decisive than Eskridge. I believe that Kevin Whaley's absence loomed large, because in the spring game, his ability to run wide, make a cut, and decisively split the gaps seemed to fit Fisch's Broncos-style rushing game exquisitely. I continue to have my doubts about this line, however. I wrote down that the starting line was: Stommes, Bunders, Davis, Carufel, and Wills. On the straight-ahead gains, the line should be alright. However, on the sweep plays, Wills and Stommes have to put a body on a linebacker or lineman and create a gap for the running backs. I don't think those runs are going to be too successful against teams with speedy front sevens like Cal, Penn State or Ohio State. While I found the line to be a tad bit slow, it should be effective against the rest of the schedule. So far, so good, but it needs to get better.
BB - Duane Bennett appears to be bigger than last year, and seems to have retained his speed and ability to make cuts despite coming off of knee surgery. Eskridge appears to be a serviceable running back, but lacks that "second gear" of breakaway speed. If Bennett is unable to remain durable throughout the season, the Gophers could be headed for sub-mediocrity.
GN - I thought the first half was very similar to what we saw last year on the ground. Second half I think the OL and RBs came out with a bit more of an attitude and did a much better job of running the ball. I'm not overly thrilled with our running game, but some of that very well could have been the vanilla play-calling. For me it came down to this. If we can't run the ball with great effectiveness against our number two defense, what are we going to do against anybody in the Big Ten? Either our ground game will continue to be mediocre or our #2 defense is outstanding.
2 - The #1 defense was taking on the #2 offense, was their performance good enough to give you a glimmer of hope for the regular season?
JG - Well, the game ended 23-0 (supposedly), with the first-team winning, so they did do rather well. However, a lot of those second-team offensive players were the linemen which led to a last-placed rushing attack. The defense was regularly penetrating the line today. Furthermore, MarQuies Gray looked severely restricted throughout the game (more on that later). Ultimately, a shutout is a shutout, and I think the defense will be good because it has speed, beef, and talented experienced players, but today didn't prove much.
BB - The first team Gopher defense was strong versus the second offense, but still lacks depth. It remains to be seen how the defense will play versus more complicated offensive schemes and Big Ten level talent.
GN - I was impressed with our defense and I think the #2's did some nice things against the #1 offense giving some depth at a few positions. I really like our CB situation but I'm unsure about the Safeties. I like the middle of our front-7 but unsure about the DEs and Triplett out the outside. I think I saw enough to give me hope that this will be a middle of the pack defense in the Big Ten. Not exactly uber-high standards but we went from the worst to bottom three and now if we can be 5th or 6th that will be continued improvement.
3 - Michael Carter was the talk of the press box following the game. Two picks on the afternoon. One was tipped and the other saw Carter staying in position and breaking on the out route to make the pick. What kind of a future do you see for Carter.
JG - Hopefully his immediate future is "off the bench before Ryan Collado." The loss of Tramaine Brock directly impacts Carter, because I think a redshirt would have been beneficial for him. However, with the depth chart as it stands, he will get playing time. And he will get burned this year - while he had 2 INTs off of Weber (who I thought was rather meh today), he also gave up 2 TDs where he was nowhere close to Decker (in fairness, it WAS Eric Decker). This year, Carter should play as nickel, with the hopes that he moves into a starting spot in 2010.
BB - Carter has the "make-up" speed that was always missing under Glen Mason's Gophers. In particular, his second interception required breaking in front of the receiver with a burst of quickness that Gopher fans haven't been used to watching. Carter looks like he could use some time in the weight room, but he has the raw tools to be a great secondary player.
GN - I am becoming a big Carter fan. In the post game press conference he receive praise from Brewster (shocking, I know), Campbell and Decker. All said that he's been making plays like he did in the scrimmage all fall camp. He's not perfect and I'm not expecting him to be All-American, but he has some tools to be very good down the road. He is in a perfect position to get some experience in the nickel behind BPT and Sherels, then he should step in and be the man next year. What scares me is CB depth in 2010.
4 - MarQueis Gray saw a lot of time but honestly was not that impressive. Was it because he was working with the #2 offense against the #1 defense or are we seeing growing pains of a freshman trying to get ready for Big Ten football?
JG - Maybe, and yes. Again, a number of the first-team blockers from last year were now protecting Gray today, and there's a reason they aren't on the first-team this year. However, there may be a bigger issue here.
Once we actually had confirmation that Jedd Fisch was going to drop the spread and turn Minnesota into a Denver Broncos - style offense, my thoughts immediately turned to Gray, who was the #3 dual threat QB coming out of school in 2008 (behind Terrelle Pryor and E.J. Manuel). He took his first snaps under center in at least 5 years today, and frankly, while he made a beautiful TD pass to the departed Brodrick Smith in the spring game, I saw nothing similar today.
We've heard rumblings that Fisch plans to give Gray a package of plays each game. We also heard that the tplaybook today was very restricted since the plays would be televised on the BTN (we don't want to give Greg Paulus a head start). If the plan is to use Weber as a traditional drop back NFL QB (which is what we saw today), and use Gray as a cliched "Wildcat" QB (which is not what we saw today), well, that plan will be figured out by the Air Force game (furthermore, for the offense to be a true Wildcat, the ball would either be out of Gray's hands, or in Gray's hands with Weber split wide). If the plan is to use the two QBs in a similar fashion, well, that's a waste of Gray's unique combination of size and speed.
I would expect, if all the QBs develop, that one of Gray, Alipate or Parish will find their way to transfer papers. Based on their skill sets, as well as the depth chart (Alipate would then start as a RS sophomore), Gray may find a spread offense team more to his liking - after all, that is the offense he was recruited to play in (ask Steven Threet about being a QB ill suited for an offense changed on you a year into your career).
BB - MarQueis Gray was likely instructed to avoid scrambling due to injury risks. Gray demonstrated the speed and arm strength to live up to the hype regarding his recruitment. The final piece of the puzzle for Gray will be learning the offensive scheme, and developing field vision that allows him to anicipate plays before they happen.
GN - Combo of working with #2s against the #1 defense and being restricted by the playbook. He, more than anybody else on the field was probably most affected the the vanilla offense. I think he will work well within this system. There are so many differing opinions of Gray and what his future holds. For now I like what he brings and I look forward to seeing him run the Gopher offense, whenever that may be.
5 - Adam Weber. 14/18, 168 yards and 2 TDs is a very good stat line, unfortunately he also had 3 picks. Your thoughts on Weber and how he looked.
JG - Weber's interception in the end zone was the most troubling to me. As a third-year starter, he should know that ball needs to be thrown away. Maybe in a game that's what happens. However, the tail end of last season saw some atrocious mistakes and bad decisions from Weber. They need to be eliminated for this team to break .500.
Minnesota built its 7-1 record in 2008 on the back of turnovers (as well as playing bad teams). Phil Steele, as well as other sources, indicates that turnovers tend to revert to the mean over a period of years, meaning that Minnesota can't expect to lead the conference in turnover margin again. That means, beating teams on merit, and it starts with flawless QB play. Weber will be able to get away with rusty play against Syracuse, but Air Force is a well-coached team. Cal has All-Americans in their secondary, all four of whom return. Most of Northwestern's secondary returns, and it had Weber's number in 2008. Weber has to be on the point RIGHT away this season, because if he has 3 INT's in any game in September, the Gophers could be 1-3 with Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois and Iowa remaining on the schedule.
BB - Unfortunately, Weber exhibited the same bad habits that hindered his performance last season. Weber wants to play catch with Decker, and on several occasions threw to Decker while he was covered despite having the option of another receiver that was open on the field. Passes to secondary receivers appeared to only occur when the play specified a different target. Decker is a great receiver, but throwing him the ball while he's in double coverage and refusing to look him off will result in more interceptions throughout the year.
GN - post game press conference Weber indicated that a number of his throws were kind of "test throws." The flea-flicker interception is the perfect example of a test throw. Very rarely will you see the flea-flicker run and the QB throw the mid out-route. Weber was saying he was using the situation to see what that would look like and what kind of a throw it will take to get in there etc. He did acknowledge that he made some bad decisions and the INT in the endzone was a clear example of tunnel vision on Decker. If this happens during the season, I'll be concerned. For now I thought he was accurate on the day and found other receivers fairly well.
6 - Can't avoid talking about the stadium. I think it was the first time in the building for all three of us. It is what you expected? More?
JG - The stadium is beautiful. As Dave Revsine said at the beginning of the BTN broadcast tonight, "Welcome to the most beautiful weather in the history of the planet." 75 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, a nice clean stadium. Also, the food was pretty good. I had a hot dog, a Coke Zero, and tried some Panino's pickle-flavored puffs (with cream cheese). They were really good. There is even a bagel stand, which I'm sure our Berkeley friends will quickly search out when they're here. Also, there is Dairy Queen at almost every stand, and also Caribou Coffee and hot chocolate for the Michigan State, Illinois and SDSU games.
I also think the maroon and gold lines on the 20 yard lines is a nice touch.
Parking and transport was also seamless. I took the shuttle from St. Paul, and it was 12 minutes from my car parked, to shuttle, to the stadium. Awesome.
All in all, I can't wait for September 12th.
BB - The stadium was incredible. Most striking was how large it appears from the inside. The concession stands offered good food selections, the seats were more spacious than the metrodome, the view of the field was incredible, and the scoreboard seemed like a 60 inch plasma TV on the wall of my living room.
GN - Very impressive. I wish that I had seen it earlier because it has been built up SO much, it basically matched my expectations. The press box was huge and it appeared that there really isn't a bad seat in the house. Outstanding facility.
One thing that Decker talked about a few times was how this is their home. The team could never feel like the Dome was their home and something they were compelled to defend. TCF is different, this is their house. They don't share it with anybody and it felt to me like they have an internal desire to defend it.
7- Your overall thoughts. Impressed? Excited? Worried?
JG - I think the team has a few definite playmakers ready to contribute this year - Stoudermire, Simmons, Bennett, Decker and maybe Carpenter. I think the jury's still out on the defense, simply because I fear the competence of its coordinators. Again, this team needs to be ready in September, because while it had (looking back) only 5 really tough teams on the schedule in 2008, I see 9 tough games in 2009, including three in September.
BB - With what I saw on the field yesterday, the Gophers are still another year from rebuilding the team to a upper tier Big Ten program. I saw a team that with a difficult schedule should be reasonably expected to post a record for the season between 4-8 and 6-6. With the exception of a few noteworthy upperclassmen, they are lacking the skilled and talented juniors and seniors who typically carry Big Ten teams through a long and grueling season.
GN - There is a lot to be excited about. We have some very good playmakers and I think a couple guys are stepping up to be included in that list. Stoudermire is the first to come to mind, I think he will be the second most dangerous player on the offensive side of the ball. What a great find he was. We still have some question marks and I don't feel that they have been answered (DE, OL), but I'm no more concerned than I was prior to the scrimmage. Cannot wait for the season.