Minnesota Preview 2006 - Offense
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Posted Aug 6, 2006

Minnesota Golden Gophers Preview 2006 - UM Offense

What you need to know ... Offensive coordinator Mitch Browning has his work cut out for him and the Gopher system. After finishing seventh in the nation in total offense, tenth in scoring and third in rushing, Minnesota has to replace star tailback Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell, who's out thanks to academic issues. There's almost no depth anywhere, but the starters should be solid as long as they're healthy. Amir Pinnix is a small, quick back who'll carry the load early on, while the passing game should be serviceable with veteran quarterback Bryan Cupito back along with starting wideouts Ernie Wheelwright and Logan Payne. The whole is better than the sum of the parts on the line.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Bryan Cupito
176-297, 2,530 yds, 19 TD, 9 INT
Rushing: Amir Pinnix
78 carries, 467 yds, 1 TD
Ernie Wheelwright
37 catches, 568 yds, 5 TD

Star of the offense: Junior RB Amir Pinnix
Player that has to step up and become a star: Pinnix
Unsung star on the rise: Pinnix
Best pro prospect: Senior OT Joe Ainsile
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Pinnix, 2) TE Matt Spaeth, 3)
G Tony Brinkhaus
Strength of the offense: Offensive line, starting 11
Weakness of the offense: No depth whatsoever

Bryan Cupito isn't going to be in the hunt for All-Big Ten honors and has been seen as the guy who hands the ball off in the Minnesota system, but he's not a bad passer and is slowly climbing up the school's career charts.  He'll be asked to carry more of the offense and provide more balance. Tony Mortensen was mediocre in his playing time last year, but chalk that up to being a freshman.
The key to the unit: Cupito has to stay on the field. He's tough, but he has been banged around a bit and has had concussion issues.
Quarterback Rating: 7

Projected Starter
- Bryan Cupito, Sr. - 176-297, 59%, 2,530 yds, 19 TD, 9 INT, 24 carries, 30 yds, 1.2 ypc
Cupito improved immensely from year one as the starter to year two with a better completion percentage and more big performances. Despite throwing for 396 yards against Ohio State and 315 against Iowa, the Gophers lost both games. He's not the biggest bomber around, but he has a good enough deep arm to make teams worry about the passing game. Expect him to do even more in the offense and have more responsibility on his shoulders if he can stay healthy.

Top Backups
- Tony Mortensen, Soph. - 9-24, 38%, 130 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT, 3 carries, 13 yds
A big 6-3, 220-pound passer, Mortensen saw a little bit of mop up time and got the start against Wisconsin. He struggled with his accuracy and still needs work before he can become a reliable starter, but he has the tools with excellent speed to go a long with his size.
- Mike Maciejowski, Soph.
Appearing to be firmly entrenched in the number three role, the 6-3, 215-pound sophomore has good mobility and enough potential to be in the starting mix next year. Now he needs a little playing time.

Running Backs
Had Laurence Maroney stayed for his senior season and if Gary Russell had been able to get the academic side of things straight, this would be the nation's best backfield. Instead, Russell is gone to some lesser school while Maroney is off being a millionaire. Shifty Amir Pinnix is a talented back who'll see most of the work, but he needs help. Brylee Callender is a strong JUCO transfer who needs to be effective 10-12 times per game, but no one else has any appreciable experience.
The key to the unit: Amir Pinnix had better be durable.
Running Back Rating: 7

Projected Starters
- Amir Pinnix, Jr. - 78 carries, 467 tds, 6 ypc, 1 TD
While not the typical Gopher running back, the extremely quick Pinnix will be a featured back in a rotation if he's not the outright number one. He saw mop-up work early on and carried the load against Michigan State rushing 32 times for 206 yards and a touchdown in the team's final win of the year. He hasn't caught any passes, but that will change.

- Fullback Justin Valentine, Jr. - 4 catches, 27 yds, 6.8 yoc, 2 TD
Valentine is a strong, versatile veteran who saw his carries fall to zero with the emergence of Gary Russell for the power game, but he could resume his role and be a factor around the goal line. Mostly the 230-pound back will block and occasionally catch passes.

Top Backups
- Gary Russell, Jr. - 186 carries, 1,130 yds, 6.1 ypc, 18 TD, 16 catches, 168 yds, 10.5 ypc, 1 TD
While he didn't have special skills, Russell was a powerful back who could've been one of the nation's leading rushers if he got his studies straight. Minnesota was 0-3 when he didn't score twice, but after he didn't enroll in summer school classes, he won't be on the team leaving a huge hole.
- Brylee Callender, Jr.
The number two man, Callender comes from the JUCO ranks where he ran for 647 yards and nine touchdowns after a shaky start. He was Mr. Football in Minnesota in 2003 rushing for 2,132 yards and 40 touchdowns for Lakeville High, but he almost blew his shot at playing by having academic and other issues. The 6-0, 205-pound back is quick and should be a key part of the rotation.

- Fullback
Jeremy Faue, Jr.
More of a pure blocker than Justin Valentine, Faue saw time over the last two years as a backup. He's an All-Academic Big Ten performer who does have some rushing skills in a short yardage situation, but he likely won't see much work.

Ernie Wheelwright and Logan Payne form a productive, talented 1-2 combination who should be able to make more big plays with their experience and playmaking ability. After those two, there's no one to count on with several redshirt freshmen needing to emerge to form a decent rotation. Matt Spaeth is one of the nation's best all-around tight ends and should once again be a killer for the ground game.
The key to the unit: Wheelwright and Payne have to make more big plays and reserves have to show up early on.
Receiver Rating: 6.5

Projected Starters
- Ernie Wheelwright, Jr. - 37 catches, 568 yds, 15.4 ypc, 5 TD
One of the Big Ten's best unsung receivers, Wheelwright had an average year as the number one target but finished strong with a seven-catch, 120-yard, one touchdown day against Virginia. At 6-5 and 215 pounds, he has the size to outmuscle most defensive backs and has the speed to be a dangerous deep threat.

Logan Payne, Sr. - 37 catches, 529 yds, 14.3 ypc, 2 TD
Payne went from being a decent reserve and part-time punt returning to the team's number two receiver. He was steady throughout the year, and then he exploded in the blowout loss to Iowa catching 11 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown. Now he'll be Bryan Cupito's go-to guy. Used more as a punt returner over the second half of the season, he'll be the backup for the job.

- Tight end Matt Spaeth, Sr. - 26 catches, 333 yds, 12.8 ypc, 4 TD
An excellent all-around tight end, the 6-6, 270-pound senior is a devastating run blocker and finished third on the team in receiving on his way to First-Team All-Big Ten honors. He wasn't a part of the passing game early on, but he became one of the team's most reliable targets over the second half of the season and should be in the hunt to be the school's all-time leading receiving tight end needing 483 yards.

Top Backups
- Mike Chambers, RFr.
Chambers adds good speed to the mix coming to Minnesota last year as a receiver and defensive back prospect. Needed for his wheels on the outside, he'll play behind Ernie Wheelwright.
- Eric Decker, RFr.
At 6-2 and 205 pounds, Decker has good size and decent athleticism. He's not going to blow past anyone, but he'll be a key backup early on behind Logan Payne.
- Tight end Jack Simmons, Soph.
While not anywhere near the blocker that Matt Spaeth is, the 6-4, 235-pound sophomore has nice hands and is a more dangerous receiver. He caught 108 passes in his high school career and will be used more this season.

Offensive Linemen
The line was the most productive in America last year allowing a mere three sacks while paving the way for 3,277 rushing yards. It loses its two key cogs in center Greg Eslinger and guard Mark Setterstrom, but it gets Joe Ainslie back at 100% at one tackle spot and has versatility between Tony Brinkhaus and Tyson Swaggert to move where needed. Steve Shidell will be a top left tackle and should get more recognition this year. Depth will be an issue early on.

The key to the unit: Keep playing at the high level. There aren't any superstars, but for what Minnesota does with its line, this will be one of the best in the Big Ten.
Offensive Line Rating: 8.5

Projected Starters
- OT Steve Shidell, Jr.
Back after starting every game last year, Shidell stepped into the left tackle job and was fantastic in place of an injured Joe Ainsile. He was terrific in pass protection and earned Academic All-Big Ten honors.
- OG .Tyson Swaggert, Sr.
Able to play center or guard, Swaggert will be the main backup in the middle along with getting the starting nod at left guard. The 6-4, 285-pound senior saw time in every game last year and should be more than solid.
- C Tony Brinkhaus, Jr.
One of the team's strongest and most versatile players, the 6-4, 300-pound junior will be a key backup behind Tyson Swaggert at guard and will get the first look at center after spending all of last year at right tackle. He's a fantastic pass blocker and has the talent to be an all-star for the running game. He showed this spring that he can handle himself well inside.
- OG Otis Hudson, RFr.
Hudson started off his career at 310 pounds, but he got into better shape over the last year and now checks in at a strong 290 to better fit the offense. He'll have to battle for the starting job, but his size is needed at right guard in place of Mike Nicholson.
- OT Joe Ainsile, Sr.
Expected to be an all-star last year, the massive 6-7, 310-pound senior got hurt right off the bat and played sparingly. He'll be the team's top run blocker early on and should be the rock of the line at right tackle. He could play on the left side if needed.

Top Backups
- G Ryan Ruckdashel. RFr.
At only 255 pounds, he's a light, quick option at right guard playing behind the bigger Otis Hudson. He's a strong run blocker for his size and should fit the offense, which needs its linemen to move, perfectly.
- T Matt DeGeest, Soph.
A good-sized 6-5, 270-pound sophomore, he'll be the biggest backup tackle option early on playing behind Joe Ainsile on the right side. He saw a little bit of time last year and should grow into an aggressive blocker.

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