Even though we're 63 days away from kickoff against UNLV, let's take a not at all speculative look at a situation that definitely is set in stone as fall practice begins.
Hopefully you picked up the sarcasm, but let's look at the Gophers' projected depth chart in 2013, as well as some position battles that should get your attention as the season draws near.
Nearly any article about the Gophers in 2013 will note the team's moderate progress during Jerry Kill's two-year tenure and the bulk of that growth came on the defensive side of the ball.
The 2012 team improved on its points allowed by a touchdown (24.7 points per game allowed from 31.7 in 2011), sacked opposing quarterbacks seven more times and picked off those same quarterbacks nine more times than the 2011 squad.
The pass defense gave up only 186.6 yards per game, good for 12th in the country and fourth in the Big Ten, while opposing quarterbacks averaged the 23rd lowest QB rating in the country, again fourth in the Big Ten. However, as anyone who saw the Iowa game recalls, the rushing defense struggled often, allowing 172 yards per game, good for 74th in the country and eighth in the conference.
Using advanced stats from Football Outsiders, the Gophers' total defense improved from 89th nationally in 2011 to 70th in 2012, with the passing defense ranking 37th nationally. The rushing defense, however, ranked 96th.
Taken more simply, Tracy Claeys's defense was able to put pressure the quarterback and even pick off a few passes when that pressure led to bad decisions. But the undersized linebacking corps, along with a thin depth chart at defensive tackle, allowed Big Ten teams to run the ball when they couldn't pass. Mixed with an anemic offense that couldn't stay on the field, what could have been an outstanding defensive unit became unfairly maligned at times for giving up too many points.
This year's Gopher defense needs to replace three of its top five tacklers and its leader in sacks, a group that includes starting cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as three-year starter Keanon Cooper and 2012 sack leader D.L Wilhite. But even with those losses, the Gophers have built up decent depth that should be able to minimize the impact of those changes.
The Gophers return six or seven starters, depending if one considers safeties Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson and Derrick Wells all starters. In this instance, I do. Here's what the depth chart should look like moving through spring practice into the fall.
DE – Michael Amaefula: The Gophers have a handful of both experienced and young defensive ends that are sure to rotate through the lineup and Amaefula returns as the best bet to step into D.L. Wilhite's departed role. Wilhite shined as a senior, dropping the quarterback 8.5 times, which led the team. Ra'Shede Hageman ranked second with six sacks and Amaefula was third with 2.5 sacks, a number that will need to rise in 2013. Stepping in his junior season, the Gophers need Amaefula to keep progressing as a defensive end; he no longer has the excuse (or limitation) of being an undersized underclassman. Instead, he's one of the more experienced defenders on the team. He started every game last year and four during his freshman year. He's slender and quick, the way Kill likes his defensive ends, and in two years of playing time, has shown flashes of potential.
While the Gophers have four defensive ends who will likely receive a decent amount of playing time, Amaefula should be at the top of that list. Much like the defense needed Wilhite to step up next to Hageman last year, it's Amaefula's turn in 2013.
DE – Theiren Cockran: Last year, I tabbed Ben Perry to possibly emerge among the Gophers' young pack of defensive ends. Perry's 2013 never really took off, as he tallied only one sack. Instead, senior D.L. Wilhite combined with defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman to form the Gophers' best pass rush in years. With Wilhite gone, a spot exists for one of the young DEs to emerge - either Perry, sophomore Alex Keith or the player that most are watching this spring and fall, Theiren Cockran.
He came to Minnesota as a raw prospect, but one with an intriguing mix of speed and size. After a redshirt year, he played in every game last year, but didn't do much as far as sacks or tackles for loss. In fact, one could argue that sophomore Alex Keith tallied better stats last year and could even end up taking over the second defensive end spot.
In favor of Keith, Jerry Kill isn't shy of playing his recruits early. In two years we've watched him put true freshmen like Marcus Jones, Roderick Williams, Antonio Johnson, Damarius Travis, Eric Murray, Scott Ekpe, KJ Maye, Phillip Nelson, Lincoln Plsek, Devin Crawford-Tufts and Derrick Wells, to name a few.
But Cockran has the advantage over Keith of having an extra year in Kill's system, as does Perry. This is the perfect example of a position battle: there are at least three players relatively equal in terms of size, playing time and expectations to fill one spot. It's easy to look at last year's stats
Ideally, Perry and Cockran would make progress going into their upperclassmen years, but if not, there's no reason Keith can't step in. Until then, Cockran has the best chance to success across from Amaefula.
He's already a physical monster – Hageman stands 6-6, 313-pounds, reportedly bench presses more than 465 pounds, jumps 37 inches into the air and runs forty yards in less than five seconds – but the Gophers need him to continue to turn that into on-field results, which he was able to do last season. Double-teamed for the first time in his career, Hageman still notched six sacks and was given all-conference honorable mention honors.
This year, the Gophers need Hageman to realize that enormous potential and at this point, there isn't much to suggest that he won't star this upcoming season. The academic problems that bothered him earlier in his career have disappeared; he is also no longer the raw specimen that came to campus needing to learn how to properly switch to the defensive side of the ball.
Now, he's a leader of the defense, with the possibility of playing on Sundays someday if he can continue to grow as a player. As long as he stays healthy, there's little reason to bet against him.
DT – Cameron Botticelli: While Botticelli might be on the slender side for a prototypical defensive tackle -- he weights 290 pounds, but it's spread across a 6-foot, 5-inch frame -- he started every game last year for the Gophers.
Botticelli may have started each game, junior college transfer Roland Johnson played just as heavily, and was arguably more effective. Johnson had the same amount of tackles as Botticelli, along with 4.5 more tackles for loss and 1.5 more sacks in three fewer games. That's not to say Botticelli isn't needed -- both guys rotate through a lot of snaps each game and Johnson is working his way back from an ACL injury this spring. There's no need to rush Johnson back, especially when the depth and size he provides up the middle is vital to this team. So we expect Botticelli to be taking snaps with the No. 1's regularly.
Sophomore Scott Ekpe is lurking, as well, earning "Outstanding Defensive Freshman" honors for his play last year and he should find a way into the rotation again along the defensive line. Redshirt freshman Yoshoub Timms figures to grab some snaps, too, but unless he has a standout fall, he should be working from deeper down the depth chart.
Still, as the season moves on, I'd expect Johnson to step into a larger role during his senior year, even becoming the starter at some point if sophomore Scott Ekpe doesn't step up as well. Johnson is a bit bulkier than Botticelli – as I said before, Johnson is four inches shorter, but weighs only four fewer pounds. The more space and offensive line attention this spot can take up, the easier it will be for the speedier defensive ends and Ra'Shede Hageman to wreak havoc.
OLB – Aaron Hill: Few players on the Gophers defense are capable of making both plays both as impressive and frustrating, sometimes even on the same drive, as Hill.
For example, against Syracuse he kept a drive alive with a silly roughing the passer penalty, only to redeem himself by intercepting Ryan Nassib on the Gophers' 3-yard-line. As maligned as the former walk-on has been at times, he rebounded last year down the stretch and provided solid tackling and improved coverage as the year continued. For example, he made a tackle in the Meineke Car Care Bowl that likely saved a touchdown.
Still, Hill's main weaknesses have been his lateral quickness and run-play recognition, which leaves the Gophers particularly susceptible to the counter. That wouldn't be a problem if Hill was playing next to an accomplished middle linebacker, but last year, he was next to Mike Rallis, who was playing out of position. When Hill is playing well, he's making tackles and stopping backs from getting deep into the defense. When he's off his game, he gets sucked into the box, unable to shed blocks and left out of position to make a play.
This isn't necessarily Hill's fault. It's not his problem if he has had to shoulder more responsibility than one would ultimately desire. Considering Hill has moved from a former walk-on to a multi-year starter is commendable and as long as a team isn't relying on him to do too much, he can offer solid play at the outside linebacker position. It's somewhat troubling for this group though that he is the most experienced linebacker by far, though.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys often rotates different linebackers through the lineup and junior college transfer De'Vondre Campbell didn't spurn Kansas State and Texas so that he can watch from the TCF Bank Stadium sidelines, but Hill enters 2013 as one of the team's most experienced defenders and figures to play the bulk of the snaps among outside linebackers.
MLB – Damien Wilson: Wilson comes from Jones County Junior College and immediately enters the depth chart as a starter. While Aaron Hill was pegged to take a few some snaps in the middle during spring practice, there's little doubt that Wilson has been slotted as the starter. ESPN's Scouting Report (subscription) says that Wilson can "slip blocks in tight quarters," is able to read and react quickly and should also be able to drop into zone coverage when needed. That ESPN report also says Wilson is a solid tackler, but that hemight struggle with faster running backs. He has also already enrolled at school and will be able to practice in March and April, leading ESPN's Adam Rittenberg to label Wilson as the team's breakout player this spring.
Similar to how James Gillum started near the top of the depth chart at running back last year, it's Wilson's job to lose. The only issue is that if Wilson can't make the transition from junior college, there's not a capable inside linebacker waiting to step in like Donnell Kirkwood did at running back.
Redshirt freshman Jack Lynn started with the No. 1's at spring practice, but the ideal situation would be to allow Lynn a couple of years to grow and progress before throwing him int the middle of a Big Ten defense. If the Gophers find out Wilson can't fill the middle linebacker slot, the rush defense moves from a concern to possibly an all-out disaster.
OLB – James Manuel: Manuel moved into the box last year and became part of the regular linebacker rotation, finishing with 50 tackles. He replaces Keanon Cooper, a three-year starter. Manuel might be on the smaller side for a linebacker and is still making the transition from safety, but in spurts he proved that he was better off playing up front than in the secondary. A problem in 2012 for the linebacking corps was shedding blocks, as Hill, Cooper and Mike Rallis were all essentially undersized linebackers who had to bulk up to play inside the box. If Wilson and the defensive tackles inside can wreak havoc, things could open up for Manuel a bit outside. Also, the senior should be expected to be pushed by Campbell, the aforementioned junior college transfer.
The current lack of linebacker depth reminds me of the defensive backfield last year, when Jerry Kill and the coaching staff brought in three junior college players and several high school recruits to round out the depth chart. Only a year later, the defensive backfield looks to be a strength for this year's team.
The Gophers also brought in three linebackers from high school, although they shouldn't be expected to jump in and play during 2013. But in one or two years, we should expect to start hearing their names.
This season, we should hear a lot from Wilson and Campbell. Junior college kids don't sign on to sit the bench, so the outside linebacker spots should be considered up for competition this spring and fall. Even with Campbell lurking, it's Manuel's spot to lose.
CB – Derrick Wells: Although Wells moved to safety at the beginning of last year, Claeys hinted about moving him back to corner in order to take advantage of depth at the safety position and when spring practice opened up, Wells practiced extensively at corner. With Brock Vereen and Cedric Thompson able to handle the safety spots – along with underclassmen Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis ready to contribute – the move makes perfect sense.
There are few players I enjoyed watching more than Wells last year. If anyone has a .gif of his tackle in the Meineke Car Care Bowl when he snuffed out a sweep and beat the running back to the sideline from the other side of the field, tackling the Texas Tech running back near the sideline, please send it over. He made several plays like that throughout the year, even while battling what was reportedly a nasty gash in his thigh.
Wells was third on the team in tackles with 74, second in interceptions with two and he also recovered a fumble in 2013. Moving him to boundary corner should take advantage of his strong tackling, while he also gives the Gophers a bit more size on the edge.
The boundary corner is expected to be incredibly versatile, whether it's blitzing, providing physical run support or playing one-on-one coverage near the line of scrimmage. As long as Wells can stay healthy, much should be expected of him in his junior season.
CB – Martez Shabazz: The second cornerback spot will likely be the defense's most contested starting position. There are at least four players who could emerge as the starter.
I've listed Shabazz as the No. 1, based on his speed and his play as a nickel corner last year, but expecting him to hold onto the spot is anything but a sure thing. Although Shabazz battled some injuries last year, his play was a bit more consistent than Briean Boddy and Jeremy Baltazar, both of whom are in the mix. Sophomore Eric Murray – who played in every game, albeit sparingly last year – should also battle for the spot.
Murray is the long shot of the group, as he turned some heads in spring practice by taking some snaps with the first team. Is it more than the coaches playing with the spring depth chart in order to motivate the upperclassmen? We'll find out during fall practice. Murray is expected to one day become a major contributor in the defensive backfield, but it remains to be seen if it will be this season.
Meanwhile, Shabazz brings some pure speed to the group, although he does give up about 10 to 20 pounds to Boddy, Baltazar and Murray. Sophomores Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis should expect to play in 2013, but they will likely rotate more in pass coverages with the safeties.
As a deeper side note, Marcus Jones has moved back to cornerback and is recovering again this spring from knee surgery, but it's unclear where he fits into the depth chart, if at all, at this point. If the coaches have concerns about Shabazz playing every down, Jones is three inches shorter and more than 10 pounds lighter.
FS – Brock Vereen: Vereen settled nicely into the safety position last year, as the Gophers put him in a position that took advantage of his strong tackling, while also taking him out of every down one-on-one coverage. One of the most experienced players on the defensive side of the ball, Vereen should play sparingly through the spring as he has earned his starting job. He comes into the season as one of the defense's most experienced players and a leader on that side of the ball. Vereen ended 2012 with 64 total tackles, good for sixth on the team and only five less than departed senior linebacker Keanon Cooper.
Listing Vereen at "free safety" might be a bit of a misnomer. Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel labeled Vereen as a field safety; the Gophers use boundary and field designations in their defensive backfield rather than strong side, weak side, free or strong safety.
I touched on the boundary cornerback definition a bit in Derrick Wells's write up, but here is a quick primer: The boundary cornerback plays on the short side of the field closest to the sideline, giving him less time to react to passes. The boundary corner also typically plays more one-on-one coverage without safety help over the top. This gives the safety on the boundary side – Cedric Thompson, in this case – the ability to play more run support and the safety on the field side – Vereen – the ability to play drop back into coverage. (For a little bit more information on defining the boundary corner position, MV wrote a bit about it back in 2011.)
Vereen's versatility also allows him to stay on the field against passing teams, as he did against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, playing in the box and out in coverage as a hybrid strong safety-cornerback.
Vereen finds himself in a comparable role as Kim Royston in 2011. Not coming back from a leg injury like Royston, but rather as a solid tackler and the tenured leader of the defensive backfield.
SS – Cedric Thompson: Thompson grabbed one of the starting positions last year as Brock Vereen transitioned from cornerback to safety and performed admirably. A strong tackler who finished with 43 total tackles and two interceptions in 2012, Thompson figures to play heavily again as the coaching staff decided to move Derrick Wells to cornerback from safety for 2012.
But as Thompson will play heavily, sophomores Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis figure to rotate through the defensive backfield as well, much as they did in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas at the end of 2012. The sophomore duo will also likely take some snaps away from Vereen, too.
Thompson's best asset is his strong tackling and if the Texas Tech game is any indication, Johnson and Travis will play, but Thompson will still man the boundary safety position, helping heavily against run support.