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March 22, 2006

Gophers have new backfield

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MINNEAPOLIS - With a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in each of the last three seasons, running back has certainly not been a problem for Minnesota in the recent past.

That enviable depth should get a stiff test this season.

The Gophers are preparing for the start of spring practice without their top two rushers from last year, a situation made more pressing by the departures of award-winning linemen Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom. Laurence Maroney decided to skip his senior year and declare for the NFL draft, and Gary Russell is not enrolled in classes this semester due to academic troubles. That leaves junior Amir Pinnix as the featured back, unless Russell can regain his eligibility.

Brylee Callender, a former Lakeville High School standout who spent the last two seasons in junior college, will also factor in. Jay Thomas, another backup, is coming off knee surgery and won't be participating in spring practices.

''I think Amir Pinnix will hold up fine. He is a good back and has been waiting for his turn,'' quarterback Bryan Cupito said. ''I'm not worried about him at all.''

Coach Glen Mason sounded a little concerned about how the blockers in front of Pinnix will mesh, especially at center - where Eslinger turned into one of the nation's finest for four years.

A pair of tackles, Bubba Brinkhaus and Ryan Ruckdashel, will get a spring tryout there, and Tyson Swaggert - who will also be working at guard - is also in the mix.

Whoever emerges as a starter will probably find himself pass blocking more than in the past, because of Cupito's maturation and the sudden inexperience in the backfield.

''In the last two years we've lost three pro running backs,'' Mason said. ''That's unusual for any program, not just Minnesota. ... We ran it a lot, because we had a great offensive line and really good running backs - and a lot of them who could take that beating. I'm not sure we have the type of personnel to do that now.

''Don't misunderstand: We're going to work awfully hard on the running game. That's our identity, but at the same time, when it's all said and done, I don't care if we run or pass as long as we move the ball, hold on to the ball and score points.''

This puts more pressure on the defense, too, which returns seven starters but is still a question mark.

''We need a lot more leadership on defense,'' said defensive end Steve Davis. ''That's what we were missing last year. We all got together at the end of last season and told ourselves that this year has to be different.''

Notes: The Gophers finalized an agreement to host North Dakota State, a newcomer to Division I-AA, in a game at the Metrodome on Oct. 21. ... Linebacker John Shevlin will miss spring practice because of a shoulder injury, but he's expected to return in plenty of time for the season.

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