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Minnesota Gopher Football: I don't miss Glen Mason but I do miss his running game

There's not much I miss from the Glen Mason Era of Gopher football. Things I don't miss include Glen Mason, an annually subpar defense, Glen Mason's smarmy attitude, the Metrodome, Glen Mason's not-so-secretive longing for the Ohio State job, the Music City Bowl, Glen Mason usually ignoring in-state recruiting, the Metrodome, and the way Glen Mason pretty much ignored recruiting altogether his last two seasons. So I won't miss that.

But what I WILL miss is that he DID get us to a bowl game every year (even though it was the Music City Bowl, it was still better than what we've gone through under Brewster), and his running game. Mason ran an offense that knew how to run the football in the Big Ten. They ran it well, and they ran it often, producing some of the best players we've had in this program in decades (which, I know, might not be saying much, but still!) like running backs Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber, and o-linemen like Ben Hamilton and Greg Eslinger. The zone blocking scheme was different than what a lot of teams were doing, but it worked well for the Gophers under Mason, and while things didn't end well with "Mase" I really do miss the way his teams could run. Mason's WORST rushing offense was 2006 when they were 5th. From 2003-2005 they were first in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game every year (the stats for the Big Ten site only went back to 2003, so I couldn't find much conference wide data beyond that, but I'm betting if the Gophers weren't first in rushing in the B1G from 1997-2002, they were close).

Then we had four seasons of Tim Brewster. He and his offensive guys told us that they wanted to run the ball, and planned to and counted on the run...and yet they didn't get it done. Here are the rankings in the ol' B1G of Brewster's running games, and hide the women and children because these numbers are scary- and not scary good...

2010: 10th- 135.2 YPG, 3.6 AVG, 14 TD
2009: 11th- 99.5, 3.0, 13 TD
2008: 11th- 103.8, 3.1, 20 TD
2007: 7th- 161.8, 4.5, 15 TD

I told you. That's just plain awful. That's a train wreck of Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman running for President-type proportions. It's uglier than a Rosie O'Donnell/Donald Trump love-child, and was harder to watch than a Nick Cage movie (at least the ones he's done lately). Well, except for 2007 when we had Mike Dunbar running the offense. Then we were basically an average Big Ten running offense. Like a lot of you, I think had Dunbar stayed the running game, and offense as a whole, would have improved, but his offense took a nose-dive in 2008 (in hindsight it's much easier to pin it on a lack of talent and experience than Dunbar) and Dunbar was shown the door. The other guys Brew brought in after him might have wanted to run the football, but clearly they didn't have much of an idea how to do it.

Which is yet another reason (one of about 3,452, but that list is growing) I'm glad Jerry Kill is our new football coach- because he and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover are going to bring a running game back to Minnesota. Last season at Northern Illinois, their offense averaged 260.4 yards per game at a ridiculous 6.3 average for for a gawdy 42 TD's! Yes, most of that was against the MAC, but the Huskies did also play Illinois, Iowa State, Temple, and you may remember the night of Sept 25th when they came into TCF Bank stadium and ran all of over the Gophs for 297 yards on 10.6 YPC. Kill's team ran the ball well at Northern Illinois, at Southern Ilinois, and at D2 Emporia State. Once he, Limegrover, and the coaches had some time to coach their team THEIR way in THEIR offense, the running game took off. Not always right away, as it takes time to adjust to a new scheme, but it's happened everywhere they've been. And everywhere they've been, they've been successful.

So while I'm not expecting Minnesota to vault to the top of the Big Ten in rushing in 2011, I AM expecting this be the best rushing offense we've had since Mason. I know that's not saying much, but I still think it means no worse than 6th in the conference this year, and that's a pretty big jump from the basement where they've been the past three seasons. It's not just a belief that we have the right coaches who, like Mason and his staff at the time, know not only how to run the football, but how to teach it so the players can get it and can be their most effective. No, you can have the best teachers and smartest coaches in the world, but if you don't have athletes to execute and perform, it's not going to matter much.

But from what we've seen at spring ball, from what we saw in the final two games last season, and what we've heard from Kill and Limegrover, we DO have talent on this team. Not saying we have national championship-level talent, or even a group good enough to compete for the conference or Legends West division title this year, but there's talent there to run the ball, and run the ball pretty well.

As with all good offenses, it starts up front with the offensive line. Because of SO many coaching changes under Brewster, and-let's be honest- not the most talented guys in the world, the running game really struggled because the line struggled. Again, with perspective, I don't see five future NFL draft picks starting this season (although the two kids at tackle? IF all goes well I'd say those two could have futures playing on Sundays. But that's another conversation for another time), but I do see a line with some size, some experience, and some ability who have impressed the coaches enough to essentially be the starting group when they leave camp. The three seniors on the interior line, Chris Bunders and Ryan Orton at guard and Ryan Wynn at center, are all experienced guys with size who works their tails off and will get after it on every play. One of the things that just KILLED me watching Brewster's teams were the false start penalties. I swear we had more false starts and offensive penalties than first downs most games, especially the last few seasons. Well I see the senior trio eliminating that, as they might not be the most talented guys, but they play hard and play smart.

The two tackles, sophomore Ed Olson and redshirt frosh Jimmy Gjere, are monsters at 6'7 and 300+ pounds, and combine the smarts and work ethic of their linemates with some pretty scary ability (and unlike the numbers of Brewster's running games, this is the "GOOD" scary). Gjere is going to take his lumps as a young, first year starter, but like Olson did last year in his trial-by-fire as a redshirt freshman who started every game, Gjere could be an absolute beast by the end of the year. I'm really excited for our O-line this year, but I'm especially excited to see these two tackles develop (Honestly, when's the last time we had two REALLY good tackles? Mase was great with the interior guys, and I know we had some solid T's in his time, but I'm talking all-conference potential guys like Olson and Gjere?).

Then there's the running backs. Duane Bennett is already one of Coach Kill's favorites, and with good reason as the senior is probably the most talented and complete back on the team. The one question with Duane remains his durability, and whether this is the year he finally stays healthy and puts it all together? Part of the problem the past three seasons has been a lack of depth behind the starter. Once Bennett got hurt or banged up, there just wasn't much behind him to carry the mail. Deleon Eskridge is back for his senior season, and while I maintain he shouldn't be a feature back on a Big Ten team, he did pretty darn well as the main guy the latter half of the year. Really, he is what he is: a downhill, between-the-tackles runner who isn't very fast, shifty or elusive, but he's tough and he takes care of the football. You can do a lot worse, but I think you can do better as well, and as the 2nd or 3rd back in a rotation, he's great.

Eskridge had an increased workload not only because Bennett was banged up, but true freshman Donnell Kirkwood (or "Kirkland" if you're the E!SPN guys broadcasting the opener againt MTSU last year) played just two games before suffering a season-ending injury of his own, and the depth behind him were two guys named slim and none. That should not be an issue this year, as not only is Kirkwood ready to go, but so are redshirt freshmen Lamonte Edwards of Woodbury and the fastest back on the team Devon Wright. The Gophs will have plenty of quality candidates to "tote the rock" in 2011.

Finally, there's the guy orchestrating the offense, a guy who was built for this type of offense. Junior MarQueis Gray was the second rated dual-threat QB recruit in the nation in 2008, but was miscast in a pro-style offense in 2009 and 2010. This year, the offense couldn't be better for him, and not only is he an extremely dangerous and tough runner, but his work ethic off the field means he's going to do everything possible to make himself the best QB he can be. And for a kid as talented as Q, in an offense as good as this one, he could be outstanding.

So the recipe is there to finally have a running game like we grew accustomed to under Glen Mason. The coaches are there, the pieces are in place, and there's seven more practices, and a lot of long hours in the next four months to get it ready for the 2011 season. I don't miss Mason, but I do miss his running game, but I have a feeling that thanks to Kill, Limegrover, and some talented and hungry players, I won't be missing it any longer.