Glen Mason‚Äôs assistants begged him not to waste a scholarship on Marion Barber III. One was so adamant that he pounded his fist on a table to drive home the point. But Barber was a two-way starter at running back and defensive back for the suburban Minneapolis high school, Wayzata, that Mason‚Äôs children attended. Plus, Barber‚Äôs father, Marion Jr., had been a star back for the Gophers in the late 1970s. So Mason took a chance on Marion III, whom he projected to be a reserve defensive back.
Not long into his first practice, in 2001, the 5'11", 215-pound Barber gave Mason reason to rethink his depth chart. ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt worry,‚Äù running backs coach Vic Adamle said to Mason, after watching Barber power through the Gophers‚Äô defense. ‚ÄúHe can play running back.‚Äù
As a freshman Barber was the Gophers‚Äô No. 2 tailback and rushed for 742 yards. After redshirting in ‚Äô02 with a pulled hamstring, he returned last season to rush for 1,196 yards and 17 touchdowns. What‚Äôs more, freshman Laurence Maroney, a slasher with breakaway speed (4.34 in the 40), emerged as the perfect complement to Barber‚Äôs bowl-‚Äôem-over style, gaining 1,121 yards on 162 carries; his average of 6.9 yards per carry was the best in the nation among backs with 100 or more carries. ‚ÄúIf I see the corner, I hit the corner,‚Äù says Maroney. ‚ÄúMarion lowers his pads and bulldozes people.‚Äù
With that talented tailback tandem and a dominant offensive line, the Gophers had the nation‚Äôs third-best rushing offense (289.2 yards per game) and went 10‚Äì3, including a last-second 31‚Äì30 win over Oregon in the Sun Bowl. It would have been an even better season had Minnesota not blown a 28‚Äì7 fourth-quarter lead against Michigan on Oct. 10. The loss was a painful reminder that despite four bowl trips in the past five seasons (Minnesota had gone 13 years without an invitation before that run), the Gophers still weren‚Äôt one of the Big Ten‚Äôs big shots.
With the return of Barber, Maroney and four of five starters along the line, plus a maturing defensive unit, the Gophers can do more than dream about playing in their first Rose Bowl since 1961. Says Mason, ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs no doubt that this is our most complete team in my eight years here.‚Äù --S.M.
2003 RECORD 10‚Äì3 (5‚Äì3, T4 in Big Ten)
FINAL AP RANK 20
RETURNING STARTERS 13
KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)
RB MARION BARBER III (JR.)
17 rushing TDs last year set school record
LB TERRANCE CAMPBELL (JR.)
Top returning tackler, with 87 stops
RB LAURENCE MARONEY (SOPH.)
Big Ten‚Äôs freshman of the year
C GREG ESLINGER (JR.)
First-team all-conference as a sophomore
CB UKEE DOZIER (SR.)
No INTs, but led team with eight breakups
Years between 10-win seasons for Minnesota, from the 10‚Äì1 squad of 1905 to last season‚Äôs 10‚Äì3 team, which won the Sun Bowl.
Tight end Matt Spaeth earned freshman All-America mention last year despite catching only 12 passes. At 6'6" and 265, with good hands and outstanding run-blocking skills, he‚Äôs out of the classic tight end mold. Spaeth doesn‚Äôt have the speed to go deep, but in Minnesota‚Äôs offense blocking comes first.
Sept. 4 TOLEDO
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†11 ILLINOIS STATE
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†18 at Colorado State
Oct. 2 PENN STATE
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†9 at Michigan
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†16 at Michigan State
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†30 at Indiana
Nov. 6 at Wisconsin