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Minnesota believes it's ready to progress
By John Lemon | Daily Herald Sports Writer
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Published: 8/13/2008 12:04 AM

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Optimists - a category that certainly includes upbeat, fast-talking Minnesota coach Tim Brewster - would say there is nowhere to go but up for the Golden Gophers after a 1-11 season.

The optimism begins with Minnesota's 15 returning starters, including sophomore quarterback Adam Weber, who led the team's spread coast offense in rushing and passing last year.

Of course, that's the same group that contributed to a winless Big Ten campaign, so there's just as much excitement about the newcomers. The consensus top-25 class includes 31 players from 16 states.

Brewster, known for his recruiting touch as an assistant at North Carolina and Texas, delivered with his first class.

If the on-field improvements aren't enough, the Gophers have a big one coming off the field - a new, on-campus stadium set to open for the 2009 season. It will be the first new Big Ten stadium since Penn State and Indiana built Beaver Stadium and Memorial Stadium, respectively, in 1960.

When the Gophers open their season Aug. 30 with a visit from Northern Illinois under its new coach Jerry Kill, the Huskies will see a Minnesota team that knows it needs to make strides in Brewster's second season.

"As we look back at the 2007 season, what we found was this: We had a group of kids that competed hard each and every game, and we weren't good enough to finish games in the fourth quarter, and we lost a number of close, tight football games," Brewster said. "I really believe that we've taken the steps necessary to become a more confident, improved football team."

A couple local products will help.

Junior Eric Small, a Naperville Central graduate, has gone from 260 pounds when he entered Minnesota to his current 302. Small will start at defensive tackle on a Minnesota defense that allowed a Big Ten worst 36.7 points a game and the most yards among the 119 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

"He's gotten so strong," Brewster said of Small, who made 18 tackles and started 6 games last year. "It's amazing what he's done to better himself as a football player. I'm really excited about what he can do to improve our defense."

On offense, Carmel product Jack Simmons is healthy after an injury-plagued 2007 season. Simmons will start at tight end and looks to improve on his 20 catches for 202 yards. In 2006, Simmons caught 7 passes for 134 yards in the Insight Bowl.

"I'm looking for him to have a real big year," Weber said. "He's 100 percent healthy. I'm looking for him to put up numbers like that (Insight Bowl) consistently this year."

Weber enjoyed a promising freshman season that saw him throw for 2,895 yards and 24 touchdowns, and rush for 617 yards.

Brewster has followed up his first recruiting class with more commitments, and at this rate it won't take an optimist to see the Golden Gophers' bright future heading into the 2009 season when they open the 50,000-seat TCF Bank Stadium.

"We have all the right things going in the right direction," Weber said. "I know fans, people I talk to on the street, make comments about the stadium and how cool it looks. I can't wait for the day we can run out there and people can enjoy it."