MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Minnesota football coach Glen Mason knows a thing or two about turning around dreadful programs, so he knew just what to look for during spring practice.
''A lot of times, when you've been in a program that's been down, and you have some success, there's a tendency to have a letdown,'' Mason said. ''I've seen no letdown. It's been a very tough spring practice.''
Mason, who turned around moribund teams at Kent State and Kansas before being hired by Minnesota in 1997, had good reason to worry: the Gophers, who lost 24-20 to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl, are coming off their most successful season in a generation.
Minnesota finished 8-3, the most victories by a Gophers team since 1967; played in a bowl for the first time since 1986; upset No. 2 Penn State; and ended the year ranked 18th in the final Associated Press poll after being rated as high as No. 12.
''This team, we're insatiable,'' said defensive end Karon Riley. ''We can't be satisfied with just the Sun Bowl because we know there are a lot bigger bowls out there and there are a lot bigger things out there for us as a team.''
Heading into spring practice, which concludes Saturday with the annual spring game, there were also several questions that needed to be answered:
--Who will be the quarterback?
Highly touted freshman Asad Abdul-Khaliq and senior Andy Persby will compete for the job. Partly because Persby spent the spring playing baseball, ''no one owns the position,'' Mason said and no decision will be made until fall practice.
Abdul-Khaliq redshirted last year and spent a season after high school playing at a prep school, so he's not the average bright-eyed neophyte.
''He's got a big-time arm, he's got a great ability to throw, but obviously he has no experience at this level,'' Mason said.
The inexperience shouldn't be a problem, said wide receiver Ron Johnson.
''By the time September rolls around, he'll be ready,'' Johnson said. ''He's a typical Big Ten type of quarterback. He sits back in the pocket and doesn't try to get out of there real fast. But yeah, he can get out of there if he has to.''
Abdul-Khaliq is already comfortable in his role as the probable offensive general.
''Don't get me wrong,'' he said. ''I'm going to be nervous probably the first game. But after that, I'll be all right.''
--Who will run the ball?
The easy answer is that Thomas Tapeh, who was ineligible last season for academic reasons, will get the bulk of the carries. Tapeh showed promise early in the spring, but sprained his left foot in a scrimmage last Sunday and will wear a cast for the next six weeks.
''I was really impressed with Thomas,'' Mason said. ''He's a big, strong running back that has good hands and has a good ability to block, which is unusual for a young running back.''
He also has a history of minor, nagging injuries dating back to his high school days at St. Paul Johnson.
''I'm concerned about the injuries he's had,'' Mason said. ''We've got to hopefully solve this.''
If Tapeh falters or is unable to play at full strength, Renato Fitzpatrick and Tellis Redmon could see significant time in the backfield. Both showed vast improvements this spring, Mason said.
--Can anyone replace Tyrone Carter?
Mason said he's often asked this question and has to explain that no one can replace the diminutive two-time All-America strong safety, who also led the special teams and was a vocal leader.
''You need a bunch of guys who have to take it upon themselves to pick up for the slack,'' Mason said.
The secondary should be strong again with Willie Middlebrooks at cornerback and Delvin Jones at free safety.
Riley, whose 16 sacks last year led the Big Ten, said he hopes to step into Carter's leadership role.
''Me, being a senior this year and having the season I had last year, I feel like I need to step up and try to pick up some of the slack where T.C. left off,'' he said.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.