Who's the key to the Gopher offense?

If you're wondering who the key offensive player for the Gopher football team will be this fall, you might be tempted to overthink the question. In this case, don't.

Yes, the running backs will be strong, the receivers talented and the line emerging. But if you are wondering who the key to the Gopher offense will be, look no further than quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq.

The Gophers' fate will hinge on the play of the senior from Elizabeth, N.J., who's entering his third year as the No. 1 QB on the Minnesota depth chart. After sharing time with Travis Cole for his first two years, Abdul-Khaliq started 12 games last year and led the Gophers to a win over Arkansas in the Music City Bowl.

The last time the Gophers were nationally ranked -- in 1999 -- they essentially had a caretaker quarterback in Billy Cockerham, whose primary job was to play mistake-free football. He didn't have to win games for that Gophers team -- he just couldn't lose them.

Expectations were similar for Abdul-Khaliq as he gained experience behind center. But this year, Glen Mason and his staff expect more from Abdul-Khaliq. He'll have to make good decisions, display maturity and leadership, and show more touch in the short passing game if the Gophers are going to succeed in 2003.

Last year, Abdul-Khaliq finished in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in most quarterback statistics:

Passing yards per game, 182.0 (7th)
Total offense per game, 209.3 (5th)
Passing efficiency, 123.6 (8th)
Touchdowns passing, 19 (4th)
Interceptions, 11 (2nd most)
QB rushing yards, 328 (4th)

He's listed in the top five of most Minnesota career passing statistics, and needs only two more touchdown passes to tie the career record of 40. He should be helped this year by a healthy tight end Ben Utecht, who played hurt most of last year, but questions surrounding the health of juco transfer Paris Hamilton could be a major setback.

If Abdul-Khaliq falters, the only backup QB with game experience is senior Benji Kamrath, who stepped in for Abdul-Khaliq and led the Gophers to a 45-42 win over Northwestern last year.

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