Heading into the 2008 season, Tim Brewster and his coaching staff are extremely optimistic about the Golden Gopher offense making a big jump from year one to year two. One of the biggest reasons for that optimism is junior wide receiver Eric Decker.
In the first season with a new coaching staff and the team using the spread offense, Decker was one of the biggest beneficiaries as he collected a school-record 67 catches to go with 909 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns (nine receiving). Decker was comfortable with the formation from high school, and was excited to reap the benefits of it going into last year.
“With the new staff and spread last year, the offense really became a very receiver-friendly system,” said Decker. “There were so many chances to make plays and get the ball. I took full advantage of the system and it just made me work extra hard to be successful. This offense is only a quick look into the future.”
Decker and Ernie Wheelwright (who graduated last year) combined for 1,684 receiving yards and 18 receiving touchdowns, and played a big part in helping redshirt freshman quarterback Adam Weber set several season offensive records. Minnesota offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar got a glimpse of what some of these plays could do in the spread in year one, and is excited to see what the tandem of Decker and Weber could do this year.
“The two of them have great chemistry,” said Dunbar. “They are not only good friends on the field, but also great friends off the field. They have gotten to know each other especially in the summer time. On the field, we told them that they have to know where each other is going. We told Adam he has to know prior to the snap, in regards to the lineman and the corner, where Eric is going and anticipate that to get the ball to him on time. If we can throw the ball on time and anticipate the open holes in the defense, obviously Eric has enough athletic ability to create separation for us to get the ball to him. The second year around, everybody has a better handle on the things that we are trying to do. We are just a better football team and everybody has a better understanding of the concepts and what we are trying to do.”
One of the things that will help the chemistry between Decker and Weber is the their friendship off the field, and the fact that they are now roommates. Weber recalls his first time meeting Decker was his sophomore year of high school during the Minnesota summer camp.
“It was at the University of Minnesota football camp in my sophomore year of high school. He was up here trying out for the coaches and so was I,” said Weber. “We got on the same razzle-dazzle team and started from there. Slowly we started talking a little more and I got to know him a little bit better. We were also friends with Minnesota men’s basketball player Travis Busch, so it is great that we have all come back together and go to the same university.”
Weber also appreciates the fact that Decker keeps him grounded both on and off the field when it comes to football.
“It is pretty easy to tell that he is a great guy,” said Weber. “He is a great athlete as well, but he is a better person. He is easy to get along with and I am kind of excited to be roommates this year. He is a fun guy and understands that playing football should be fun, and that it is a game. When we go out there, he reminds me just to have fun. He is just one of those amazing athletes that brings out the best in other people.”
The chemistry between Decker and the rest of the offense exists despite the fact that Decker did not play spring football this year. While his teammates were gearing up for the spring game, Decker was playing a key role as a starting left fielder for the Golden Gophers baseball team. He joined an exclusive club of only 73 Minnesota athletes (according the sports’ respective media guides) to letter in baseball and football that includes the company of long-time Vikings Head Coach Bud Grant, former Minnesota Athletic Directors Paul Giel (College Football Hall of Famer) and Tom Moe and College Football Hall of Famers Ed Widseth and John McGovern. Decker is proud of the fact that he has been able to represent the University of Minnesota in both sports, and is driven to succeed at a high level in both.
“Last spring worked out well for me to join the baseball team,” said Decker. “Assistant Head Coach Rob Fornasiere approached me about it my sophomore year, and I joined for a week or two. Following that, I came back last spring and joined the baseball team full-time. It worked out great and having that opportunity to play two sports has been awesome. It cannot be taken for granted because not a lot of people get to do it. I think I will continue to play both and hopefully both can go well. I concentrate on football now and when baseball gets here, I’ll focus on that.”
His time with the Golden Gophers baseball team worked out well for everyone, as Decker batted .329 with 42 runs, 28 RBI, nine stolen bases, a .439 on-base percentage and led the team with 27 walks. Decker joined Andy Persby and Noel Jenke as one of only three Golden Gophers since 1966 to letter in football and be drafted in the Major League Baseball Draft when the Milwaukee Brewers selected him in the 39th round this past summer.
“It was an honor to be drafted by the Brewers, but I think they knew I wasn’t going to sign,” said Decker. “It was more of a recognition thing for the future.”
Dunbar, who was himself a college baseball player at the University of Washington, got together with Brewster before the spring and they told Decker if he was going to play a major role on the baseball team he had their blessing to be there instead of spring practice. When asked about Decker’s athleticism in both, Dunbar merely explains.
“I attempted to play college baseball at the University of Washington, and I wish I had Eric’s athleticism when I was there.”
Minnesota Head Baseball Coach John Anderson was also impressed with Decker’s first year with the Golden Gophers baseball team.
“We knew coming into last season that Eric had a Major League Baseball build and great athleticism,” said Anderson. “However, I was very impressed with some of the adjustments he made and how quickly he was successful at this level after not playing consistently for couple of years.”
Decker has not only succeeded at two sports, but has been a model student-athlete with a high level of success in the classroom. He is a two-time Big Ten All-Academic selection as a Business and Marketing Education major. He credits his parents for bringing him up with a good work ethic, along with a little healthy sibling competition for his drive.
“My older sister Sara is a consultant for an organization called SMART in New York,” said Decker. “Since she was in eighth grade she was in varsity track and in high school she was good at basketball and cross country. She got a scholarship to Columbia for running track and cross country. That was a lot to follow and I wanted to top that, and make my parents just as proud of me too. It was a competition that we never really shared openly with each other, but it was just there.”
Despite the fact that he had a highly successful sophomore season, both Decker and Dunbar know that he can be even better. In fact, Dunbar feels that Decker is good enough to increase his versatility as a wide receiver for the Golden Gophers, which could help him a lot of ways this year.
“Last year he pretty much played one spot,” said Dunbar. “Now we are asking him to learn them all so that we can move him around, because we know that people are going to try and double him. If teams are going to want to double him, we want make it hard on them and move him around to different positions. Right now he can play any one of them so that is the new thing we are asking him to do this year.”
The drive to succeed is a big part of Decker’s desire to help turn things around quickly this season.
“We have to cut down our mental mistakes,” said Decker. “That is what killed us last year. Ten guys can be doing the right thing and one screws up, the whole play or series is ruined. If we eliminate those and make the other team physically beat us, we can make a quick turn around in number of wins. You can’t put a number on it, but the wins will just fall into place. Our job is to do everything we can to be successful.”
story by Steven Geller