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Minnesota Gopher Football: The 4 Best Players of the Modern Era

You the voters decided Bernie Bierman was the fourth face of Gopher football's Mt Rushmore, and all four were from Minnesota's "Glory Years" that ended with their last conference title in 1967. Now we give the more recent guys their due by deciding the best four of the modern era. Two are easy decisions. The other two? Well that's where you come in.

University of Minnesota Athletics

Last week we picked the four faces of Minnesota Golden Gopher Football's Mt Rushmore, with former coach and player Bernie Bierman winning the fourth spot with 44% of the vote. His inclusion, along with Bronko Nagurski, Bruce Smith, and Bobby Bell, make it four men from the "Glory Years" which culminated with the school's last Big Ten title back in 1967. Since then, Minnesota hasn't won much, but there's still been some very good players, most of whom you're probably much more familiar with than the guys we talked about last week who player fifty, sixty, or seventy years ago or more.

So today is about giving the modern era guys their due by picking the four best to wear Maroon and Gold since 1967. Since we're again limited by our polling options, we're not going to open the voting to all four spots- and really, we don't need to. There are two automatics that should be on everybody's list, so we're putting them on to start. But we'll give you the opportunity to choose the other two names, and to do it we'll steal an idea from the fine folks at The Daily Norseman- comment voting! We have nine candidates (NINE!), so we'll put each name in the comments section, and you vote for your favorite two by rec'ing said player name comment. It would be helpful if you'd just choose two, but hey, free country and all. The nine candidates coming up but first, the two guys who don't even need to put to a vote:

GREG ESLINGER, C, 2002-2005

The best Gopher since 1967 is an unheralded 250 pound offensive line recruit from Bismarck, North Dakota. Few had heard of Eslinger when Glen Mason took a chance of him, but he quickly established himself as a starter in his freshman year, and by his senior year finished as one of the most decorated players the program has ever had. Eslinger is one of only two players in the history of the program to be named 1st team All-Big Ten three times (the other? Fellow interior lineman Leo Nomellini from 1947-49. The college and pro football hall-of-famer doesn't get enough recognition for his greatness), was named an All-American as a junior and senior, and in that senior year in 2005 won about every award an offensive lineman could win: he became the third Gopher ever to win the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman, the Dave Rimington Trophy as the nation's best center, and was also named the Big Ten's Offensive Lineman of the Year. From 2003-05 Eslinger spearheaded a rushing attack that had not one but TWO 1,000 rushers in each of those years and never averaged less than 5.4 yards per carry. In the estimation of this blogger, he's the greatest Gopher of the modern era, and is the first automatic choice as one of the four best players since 1967.

TYRONE CARTER, SS, 1996-1999

Carter is easily the best defensive player of the modern era, and the school's all-time leading tackler with 528. Named 2nd team All-Big Ten as a sophomore in 1997, he was 1st team All-B1G in 1998 and made a few All-American lists before becoming one of the best players in the country as a senior in 1999, named 1st Team All-Big Ten and a consensus first team All-American, and won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. Carter led the Gophers in tackles for three straight seasons from 1997-99, and went onto play 10 years in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

So those are the two easy choices. Now comes the tough part of picking the other two. Before we get to that, a word about Bob Stein: If you're not aware (I wasn't until doing some interwebs research), Stein played end from 1966-1969, was a two-time All-American and All-Big Ten selection, and was part of that last Big Ten champion in 1967. He's been inducted into the College Football and Gopher hall of fame, and is absolutely an all-time great Gopher football player. However, because he was part of that last championship team, we're excluding him from modern era consideration, but at least wanted to recognize him for his accomplishments. Here then are your candidates (in alphabetical order):

Marion Barber III, RB, 2001-2004

The first candidate might have the fewest credentials and accomplishments to be on the list, yet he might also be the most famous/well known Gopher of the modern era. His dad starred for the Gophers in the late 70's (yes, Marion Jr was named 1st team All-B1G twice in his U of M career, but he's only sixth on the school's all-time rushing list despite playing all four years. I know they played less games per season back then, but as good he was, on a "modern era" list, you have to better than sixth in rushing to be a candidate) and after Marion III tore up the Minnesota high school ranks with Wayzata, he tore up the Big Ten as a freshman with 742 yards and 7 scores on 6.3 ypc. His sophomore season lasted just 19 carries before he was done for the year with an injury, but came back strong in 2003 and 2004 with back-to-back seasons of at least 1,196 yards, 11 TD's, and 5.5 ypc. Despite playing in just three full seasons, he finished fourth all-time in rushing yards (3276), and was second in program history in all-purpose yards (4495), rushing touchdowns (35), and YPC (5.7) of any Gopher back with at least 500 career carries. He has to be mentioned in any conversation about the three best backs in Gopher history, and because that actually means something at a school that's been very run-heavy the past few decades, he should at least be considered a candidate.

Eric Decker, WR, 2006-2009

He's the all-time receiving leader at a school that just hasn't thrown the ball much. Ron Johnson had a good career and has an argument for being the school's best receiver as the career leader in receiving TD's (31), a higher career YPC than Decker (15.1 to 13.7), and a stronger single season performance. Both guys played all four years but had their best season as juniors: Johnson in 2000 with 61 catches/1125 yards/18 TD's/18.4 ypc, while for Decker it was 2008 with 84/1074/7/12.8. The careers of both players are actually very similar: they got their feet wet as freshmen, had breakout sophomore seasons (especially Decker with 909 yards and 9 TD's), established themselves as stars as juniors before their numbers fell off as seniors (Decker's due to injury, Johnson's due to...Asad Abdul-Khaliq's sophomore season? I don't remember why Johnson's numbers dropped off but they did). They were used differently too as Johnson turned into a big-play, deep threat averaging 18.4 and 16 yards per catch as a junior and senior while Decker only averaged more than 15 YPC once, which was his senior year at 15.2. Decker was the go-to guy in the offense and had to make every catch all over the field, and despite less YPC than Johnson he ended up with more career yards and way more catches. Decker is the only Gopher in history with 50+ catches in three seasons, and his 84 receptions in 2008 and 67 in 2007 are 1 and 2 for single season school records for cathces. Also in Decker's favor is that he put up all of these numbers despite missing the last four games of his senior year with a foot injury as he was on pace for his best single season in yards, YPC, and TD's through eight games. Decker and Johnson are unquestionably the two best receivers in the history of the program, but since it's for one that hasn't thrown the ball much, there's only room for one wideout in the candidate list, and that guy is Decker.

Ben Hamilton, C, 1997-2000

If Eslinger's the best lineman of the modern era, Hamilton's not far behind. He played all four seasons, mostly at center, and was named consensus All-American and All-Big Ten as a junior and senior in 1999 and 2000. A fourth round pick of the Denver Broncos, he was elected to the M Club Hall of Fame in 2011.

Laurence Maroney, RB, 2003-2005

He's not the all-time leader in yards or rushing touchdowns, but Maroney has a pretty strong argument as the best back ever to play at Minnesota. In his three seasons at The U he never rushed for LESS than 1121 yards or 10 TD's, and is the only back in school history to rush for at least 1000 yards and 10 TD's in three consecutive seasons. Think about that for a second- the Gopher offense has quite literally had trouble topping those marks as a TEAM in recent seasons (seriously, just look at the numbers from 2008-10. It's pathetic. Laughable if it wasn't our own Gophers). And he did it with a ridiculous career average of six yards per carry, though part of that was thanks to his freshman year when he averaged 6.9 YPC. His 1464 yards in his final season as a junior in 2005 set a school single-season record, and he finished second in career rush yards (3,933) and fifth in TD's (32). He was named B1G freshnman of the year in 2003 (1121 yards and 10 TD's on just 121 carries), was 1st-team All-B1G in 2004 and 2005, and even made a few All-America lists his junior year. His time in professional football has been both disappointing and bizarre, but that shouldn't detract from one helluva career with Minnesota.

Karon Riley, DE, 1999-2000

As you've probably noticed, there hasn't been a lot of defensive players on the list. Not to spoil the surprise, but Riley will be the first and only candidate who didn't play offense (the Glen Mason Era, everybody!). Riley played defensive end for two seasons with Minnesota after transferring from Southern Methodist, and he played it really well, registering 16 sacks and 22 tackles for loss as junior in 1999 and 13 sacks and 20 TFL in 2000. He named Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the year in 2000 and a consensus 1st team All-Big Ten pick, and was named All-Big Ten by the coaches in 1999.

Mark Setterstrom, OG, 2002-05

The Northfield High Raider started all four years at Minnesota, and racked up accolades while providing some of the best pass and run blocking in the country (he starting all three years the Gophers had two 1000 yard backs). He was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman team in 2002, honorable mention All-B1G as a sophomore, and was consensus All-B1G in 2004 and 2005. He also earned All-America honors from a few publications as a junior and senior as well.

Matt Spaeth, TE, 2003-06

Mason Era teams excelled at producing three things: great running backs, interior offensive linemen, and tight ends. Spaeth was the best of the Mason Era tight ends and arguably the best to ever play the position at Minnesota. He started 10 games as a freshman after replacing the injured Ben Utech, and by the end of the year was named to a few freshman All-America teams. He was Honorable Mention All-Big Ten as a sophomore, then 1st team All-B1G in 2005 and 2006. As a senior he was also named First Team All-American, and won the John Mackey award as the nation's best tight end. He didn't put up monster receiving numbers (his senior season was by far his best with 47 catches for 564 yards and 4 scores), but was very good catching passes and was a devastating blocker.

Darrell Thompson, RB, 1986-1989

Thompson is the most productive back in school history as the all-time leader in rushing yards (4654), touchdowns (40) and carries (936). JD Mill would also want me to point out he's from Rochester. Thompson graduated from John Marshall high school, then stepped into the Gophers' starting lineup in 1986 and dominated, with a then-single season school record of 1376 yards on 5.7 carries and also scored 8 TD's. Not surprisingly he was named All-Big Ten and the conference's inaugural Freshman of the Year award winner. That might have been his best season, as he didn't make 1st team All-Big Ten again in his career, but was named 2nd team All-B1G as a sophomore in 1987 and senior in 1989. He gained at least 1000 yards in three of four seasons (he gained 910 as a junior, but never gained less than 1139 in the other three), had two seasons with 10+ TD's, and was an absolute workhorse as he never carried the ball LESS than 210 times in a season. He was a first round pick in 1990, and is now the color analyst for Gopher football games on the radio.

Adam Weber, QB, 2007-2010

I would have let GN write about Weber but I figure this post is already long enough, and you didn't want to read another 10,000 words, especially when most of it would have been about how GN misses Weber's musk and wants to get an apartment together when this is all over. Weber's here because he's the school's all-time leading passer and because GN would fire me if I didn't include him. But let's be honest, being the all-time leading passer at a running school like Minnesota is kind of like being the best domestic beer on tap at Gastoff's. He started all four seasons on campus for three different head coaches and about 18 different offensive coordinators. He's the all-time leader in yards (10,917), TD's (72), attempts (1594), completions (258) and interceptions (51), and holds the single season records for all of those categories as well. Would you believe he broke the single season marks for all of those stats not only in the same season, but in his freshman season in 2007 (2895 yards/24 TD's/19 INT/449 ATT/258 completions)? True story, look it up. Weber was the quarterback and leader through some of the most difficult times in the program's history, and with the coaches and offense constantly changing, he was the one constant. Brian Cupito had a better individual season (his senior year numbers of 2819/22/9 were better than any one season Weber had), and Asad Abdul-Khaliq was a better dual-threat and both won more games as starters, yet I'm guessing Weber would have loved to have the talent around him that both of those guys had. And that's really the argument with Weber- he's the all-time leader simply by volume, yet he was also pretty much the entire offense in those years as well, with really only Eric Decker and a poorly used MarQueis Gray to help. The offensive line was a trainwreck in every season he played, and they couldn't come close to establishing a decent running game. Who knows what Weber could have done with guys like Eslinger and Setterstrom blocking and Maroney and Barber running the ball for him, and I'm betting both Cupito and Abdul-Khaliq wouldn't have fared as well with the supporting cast (or lack-thereof) that Weber had to deal with. And while I've poked fun at good ol' smarmy Mase, he at least knew what he was doing on offense, something you could never say about Tim Brewster.

So there's your list. Voting happens in the comments below. Rec the two player comments you want to vote for.