It's Pinnix's job to lose with Gophers
By Dave Campbell AP Sports Writer MINNEAPOLIS -- Amir Pinnix is confident. He better be. The stream of standout backs Minnesota has used to become one of the best rushing teams in college football has dried, and Pinnix is the only returner who ha...
By Dave Campbell
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- Amir Pinnix is confident. He better be.
The stream of standout backs Minnesota has used to become one of the best rushing teams in college football has dried, and Pinnix is the only returner who has proven himself as the featured runner in a Big Ten game. (Only one, at that.)
It's his job to lose, and there's nobody else with any experience.
"One would assume that he would be the heir apparent, based on his performances in the past," coach Glen Mason said earlier this month.
After biding time behind Marion Barber, Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell, Pinnix, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, is eager to show that his 206-yard output in a win over Michigan State last year when Maroney was hurt was not a fluke.
"Patience is a virtue, and good things come to those who wait," Pinnix said. "It's a childhood dream."
The biggest question: Can he hold up over an entire season? Pinnix missed the first week of spring practice because of an ankle injury, and at 6 feet and 205 pounds, he's not as big as some of the others who have shined at that position.
The pressure on Pinnix increased last week when his top two backups got in trouble. Junior transfer Brylee Callender was suspended indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules, and redshirt freshman Jay Thomas was suspended for the season opener for the same.
That leaves sophomore Alex Daniels, a heavily recruited linebacker who switched positions this fall, and freshman E.J. Jones as subs for the game at Kent State on Aug. 31. Fullback Justin Valentine could also see some time at tailback.
But the Gophers, who went 7-5 after a seventh-place finish in the conference and a Music City Bowl loss to Virginia last year, didn't develop a dominant ground game merely with good backs. They've traditionally had one of the best offensive lines around, and even the loss of All-Americans Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom hasn't dampened their confidence in that unit.
Tony Brinkhaus has moved from tackle to center as Eslinger's replacement, and former backup center Tyson Swaggert is the left guard. The tackles, Steve Shidell and Joe Ainslie, are both returning starters. The only uncertainty is at right guard, where redshirt freshmen Ryan Ruckdashel, Otis Hudson and Ned Tavale are fighting for the spot.
"We've got enough pieces to the puzzle there where I really believe that we'll be good," Mason said.
Still, it's no secret that Minnesota will throw the ball more this season with senior Bryan Cupito back for his third year as a starter. Senior Matt Spaeth is one of the nation's top tight ends, and receivers Ernie Wheelwright and Logan Payne have experience.
For all the running the Gophers have done during Cupito's up-and-down tenure, he actually has a chance to finish his career with several of the school's passing records. He has 33 touchdowns and only 16 interceptions in 23 starts. Last season, Cupito's completion percentage was 59.3.
"His maturity has changed so much in the last few years," said Spaeth, who caught 26 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns last year. "It's hard to describe, but he's just a way more mature person than he used to be -- and that's what's made him into the leader that he is now."
Special teams is a concern, and sophomores Joel Monroe and Jason Giannini are competing to be the kicker after Giannini missed eight extra points last season.
The defense is an even bigger worry, with the tackle position especially unsettled.
Seven starters -- including defensive end Steve Davis and linebackers John Shevlin, Mike Sherels and Mario Reese -- return, but this has been sore spot for Minnesota for several years. In 2005, the Gophers gave up 44, 38, 45, 52 and 34 points in their five losses.
With Mason now under contract for five more seasons and funding for a new stadium on campus secured, the program is more stable than ever. That doesn't mean it's anywhere near the Big Ten elite, however.
A September visit to California, ranked ninth in the first AP poll, is looming. So are back-to-back home games against Michigan and Penn State, as well as trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State.