Troy Stoudermire already holds the Big Ten career record for kickoff return yards and, barring another serious injury, the Gophers senior has a chance to finish his career at the top of the NCAA chart, too.
He might need to take a few risks to do so, though.
Following the NFL's lead, the NCAA made significant changes to kickoffs this winter with the hope of improving player safety by reducing the number of violent, high-impact collisions. Beginning this season, kickoffs move up 5 yards to the 35-yard line, the coverage team is only allowed a 5-yard run-up and the offense gets the ball at the 25 on touchbacks.
In other words, the number of kickoff returns could drop significantly, which is what happened in the NFL last season.
That's not exactly ideal for the Gophers and Stoudermire, who has 3,102 kickoff return yards and is within reach of the NCAA mark of 3,517 held by Houston's Tyron Carrier.
Opponents no doubt will attempt to kick the ball deep in the end zone, hoping to force Stoudermire to settle for touchbacks.
"I'm not too worried about it," Stoudermire said. "I'll just be smart with it. If I feel like I can take it, I'll take it. But I know if I take it out, I better get past that 20."
Actually, the 25-yard line now. He hopes to push that line farther, of course. Maybe even return one for a touchdown, something he hasn't done yet, which is surprising given his talent and the fact he's had 122 career opportunities. His résumé does include a 90-yard return against Illinois in 2010 that ended at the 4, but the goose egg in the touchdown column irks him.
"It's just this curse on me," he said. "I have to break that this year."
That Stoudermire is able to set those goals this spring is encouraging news for the Gophers. The starting cornerback thought his college career was over after he fractured a bone in his left forearm in the third game last season. He missed the entire Big Ten portion of the schedule, and the Gophers even recognized him in Senior Day festivities. He will get honored again this season, however, after receiving word during winter break that the NCAA had granted him an extra year of eligibility.
"The whole time I was preparing myself for the worst," he said.
The NCAA doesn't hand out extra years like free candy, but the governing body got it right in Stoudermire's case. He hadn't taken a redshirt season in his career. He really only played in three games last season, none in conference. That hardly rises to the level of being considered representative of a season.
Stoudermire initially wanted to tough it out, figuring it was his final season. He tried to play with a cast on his arm against North Dakota State but quickly realized that was a bad idea.
"My teammates needed me," he said. "I gave it all I got, but I couldn't tackle. The first tackle I tried to make, the pain was unreal so I couldn't finish out."
As disappointed as he felt at the time, his injury turned out to be a blessing that ultimately could alter his next step in life. Without the extra year, Stoudermire would have withdrawn from school this semester 10 credits short of graduation to focus on the NFL. It's unrealistic to think he would have been drafted, but he probably would have earned an invitation to a rookie minicamp.
Instead, Stoudermire gets one more season to prove himself on the field. He also is set to graduate in May with a degree in youth studies.
Whether he's good enough to get drafted next spring depends on how he performs in his second senior season, but his odds increased with the opportunity.
"Breaking my arm actually helped me a lot," he said.
Now he has to take advantage of it. Stoudermire is the Gophers' best defensive back and he said he feels more comfortable in that role after playing wide receiver early in his career. He believes he turned a corner as a cornerback last spring when he took double reps in practice.
"It's a good opportunity for him," coach Jerry Kill said, "because it allows him to really, truly learn how to play the corner position because he's still in that transformation."
Stoudermire said he's reached a point where he considers himself a cornerback now, no longer a wide receiver being pressed into action on the other side of the ball. That's an important distinction.
"I feel like I've been playing corner for about four years now," he said. "I feel like I'm going to have a really good season at corner this season."
It's an opportunity he wasn't sure would ever happen.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org