Glen Mason?s 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?s children attended. Plus, Barber?s 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. ?Don?t worry,? running backs coach Vic Adamle said to Mason, after watching Barber power through the Gophers? defense. ?He can play running back.?
As a freshman Barber was the Gophers? No. 2 tailback and rushed for 742 yards. After redshirting in ?02 with a pulled hamstring, he returned last season to rush for 1,196 yards and 17 touchdowns. What?s more, freshman Laurence Maroney, a slasher with breakaway speed (4.34 in the 40), emerged as the perfect complement to Barber?s bowl-?em-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. ?If I see the corner, I hit the corner,? says Maroney. ?Marion lowers his pads and bulldozes people.?
With that talented tailback tandem and a dominant offensive line, the Gophers had the nation?s third-best rushing offense (289.2 yards per game) and went 10?3, including a last-second 31?30 win over Oregon in the Sun Bowl. It would have been an even better season had Minnesota not blown a 28?7 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?t one of the Big Ten?s 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, ?There?s no doubt that this is our most complete team in my eight years here.? --S.M.