The Gophers’ secondary played substantially better with the return of senior safety Kyle Theret against Southern California last Saturday, but the group remains hobbled by Kim Royston’s absence.
Royston’s arrival would provide a needed spark to a defense that has allowed an average of 30 points in the first three games, but it doesn’t sound like the senior safety will be quite ready for Saturday’s game when the Gophers (1-2) host Northern Illinois (1-2).
“He’s chomping at the bit to play,” coach Tim Brewster said of Royston, who practiced in full pads Tuesday. “I know he’s close, but I think that last step is a big step toward cutting him loose and saying he can go play.
“We just want to be sure that that last step that he takes toward getting back on the field is the prudent one.”
Royston broke two bones in his left leg during spring practice earlier this year and is still recovering from an Aug. 25 surgery.
His replacement, freshman James Manuel, has improved with each game this season, but the Gophers have missed Royston’s experience.
In 2009, Royston’s first season with Minnesota after transferring from Wisconsin, he started all 13 games and tallied 86 tackles. He also had an interception, a sack and forced a fumble.
Theret said Manuel has the potential to be great, but Theret developed a great deal of chemistry with Royston last season and hopes the tandem can be back in full force when Big Ten play begins on Oct. 2.
“Kim’s got kind of the same attitude as I do, and we’ll never back down out there,” Theret said. “I think he’ll give us a little extra push that we might need.”
Running game remains focus
Through thick and thin, the Gophers are trying, trying and trying to establish an identity as a running team.
The Gophers have nearly twice as many rushing attempts (142) as passes (77) at this point in the season.
“We want to be able to run the ball,” Brewster said. “It all starts with us, with our ability to run the ball with consistency.”
After eclipsing four yards per carry in the first two games, the Minnesota ground game struggled against USC, stumbling to a 2.2-yard average on 37 attempts.
The Gophers sorely missed their top running back, junior Duane Bennett, who had no carries in the second half. Bennett started against the Trojans, but was clearly bothered by an ankle sprain suffered in the Sept. 11 loss to South Dakota. He ran for just six yards on seven carries.
Bennett should be back to 100 percent this week, Brewster said, but the Gophers will still run with junior DeLeon Eskridge and freshman Donnell Kirkwood.
Senior quarterback Adam Weber, the Gophers’ career leader in touchdown passes, has been the center of the offense the last three seasons, but he isn’t bothered by the new focus on the rushing attack. Despite managing to exploit the USC secondary more than a few times, Weber said he is committed to the current game plan.
“You can’t say you’re going to be a running team and as soon as things start looking bad you go away from it because that’s when you lose your identity,” Weber said. “You stick with the plan, and big plays will happen.”
Kicker competition begins
The turning point in Saturday’s loss to USC was undoubtedly Robert Woods’ 97-yard kickoff return that gave the Trojans a 19-14 lead.
Missed tackles can often lead to big plays on special teams, but Brewster said a line drive kick by senior Eric Ellestad didn’t give the coverage team enough time to run downfield.
Ellestad is just 2-for-5 on field goal attempts this season, and with both issues causing concern, Brewster has decided to put Ellestad in a direct competition with junior David Schwerman this week.
Brewster said Ellestad should be able to relax more should he out-kick Schwerman this week.
“[Ellestad] wants very badly to be our kicker, and he wants to execute,” Brewster said. “He wasn’t pleased with the way he kicked on Saturday and rightfully so.”
-Redshirt freshman Connor Cosgrove has been released from the hospital after recent chemotherapy treatments for leukemia.
Brewster said he had three rounds of chemo on Monday and is in the midst of a two-year treatment process.
-In the wake of Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio’s heart attack on Sunday, Brewster said: “This profession can eat you up a little bit if you let it.”
Brewster exercises daily, watches what he eats and has an annual physical to help combat the possible stress-related health issues exhibited recently with other coaches.