Well the Starks weren't kidding- winter IS coming, and apparently it's never going away. I know it doesn't seem possible what with yet another day of subzero temperatures, but Gopher "spring" football starts Tuesday, and I hope there's enough room in Castle Black to fit a football field because they sure won't be practicing outside. Though, running the Oklahoma Drill on top of The Wall would certainly up the ante, am I right? We covered the departing seniors on offense and the competition for their spots many moons ago when it was subzero and Minnesota looked like Antarctica (Rust Cohle is right- time IS a flat circle) so today let's do the same for the defense. It's a group that loses only seven seniors and just four starters but the losses on this side are certainly significant.
Let's start with the position group suffering the biggest loss- both figuratively and literally: On the surface any team would be envious of Minnesota returning every one of their D-ends from a promising group while losing just two defensive tackles, only one of whom started. But when one was your best player, the other an underrated key contributor AND the depth behind them is a bit of an unknown? For me, how they fill this massive void of humanity and talent is one of the keys to the spring.
I don't have to tell you about Ra'Shede Hageman and the impact he made- massive man, massive talent, local kid, Bane mask, kind of a ridiculous freak of nature? Yeah, he'll be missed. Ra'Shede was first team All-B1G, third team All-American and, as he's showing at the NFL Scouting Combine, a wee bit athletic for a 6'6 310 pound beheamoth. He dominated for stretches during his senior season and was somebody every O-coordinator had to account for, usually with more than one blocker. There's nobody else on the roster who can step in and replace what he brought and that's a knock on Minnesota- the list of schools with a future 1st round draft pick waiting to step in at DT is a pretty short one.
Less heralded but still important was the play of Roland Johnson, who started just two games inside but played in all 13 and was an important part of the rotation. Good against the run and the pass, it's a shame the former JUCO transfer didn't get one more year in Maroon and Gold, as a knee injury ended his 2012 seaon too soon, and he looked to just be hitting his full stride by the end of last year. He could have made an impact beside returning starter Cameron Botticelli (who wins the award for "Best Gopher whose profile pic makes him look like he works for the Geek Squad"), but alas, the Gophs will need to find someone else to pair with Botticelli.
By far the most likely to step in is junior Scott Epke, who played in all 13 in 2013 with 19 tackles and one TFL, and is the only other returning interior lineman to get much in the way of playing time last year. Mammoth senior-to-be Harold Legania (6'4 308)and soph Yoshoub Timms both played sparingly last year, but will be fighting for rotation spots. Legania's size would be great against the run while Timms looked promising in five appearances last season. Also keep an eye on freshman Demaris Peppers and soph Jordan Hinojosa, both of whom redshirted in 2013.
It's been awhile since the Gophers went two deep with strong candidates at outside linebacker (the last time was...?)- not to mention the two really good returning players at MLB too- but DC Tracy Claeys
and LB Coach Bill Miller have some really good players that Gopher fans should get excited about. The QB battle will get all the attention this spring but if you're going to one of the open practices, you need to see the linebackers.
Like the d-line, just two linebackers were lost as seniors from 2013, though both were starters most of the season. Former walk-on Aaron Hill turned himself into a solid B1G linebacker and was one of the leaders of the defense a year ago starting all 13 games at outside linebacker. He led the team in picks (two), tied for first with 52 solo tackles, and was third in total tackles (72) with 5 TFL, 1.5 sacks. Production and leadership like that will certainly be missed.
The other outside spot is also up for grabs as James Manuel departs after playing in all 13 games in 2013 while starting 10 games, including seven of the last eight. His career highlight will always be the Northwestern game, as the Gophs had suffered back-to-back ugly losses to Iowa and Michigan coming in. Manuel recorded 5 tackles, a sack and his 24 yard pick-six late in the third quarter broke a 7-7 tie and helped to turn around a season as the Gophers went on to win 20-17. That win was the first of four straight in the B1G, the first time Minnesota had pulled off that feat since the early 1970's. A converted safety, Manuel struggled with consistency throughout his career, but had a solid senior season finishing 6th in tackles (54 total) while notching 3.5 TFL and two sacks.
Junior De'Vondre Campbell has every reason to be an opening day starter as he possesses the size and athleticism coaches dream about in an OLB. He showed flashes of that potential last season which included three starts and 41 total tackles, but he had trouble at times adjusting to the B1G game. With a full season under his belt and spring and fall practice still to come the coaches sound very excited about Campbell fulfilling that massive potential this season, and could be a breakout star for the Gophers in 2014.
As mentioned off the top, Campbell is far from the only OLB on the roster with impact potential. Four others figure to have a chance to start, or at least crack the two deep this spring. Redshirt frosh De'Niro Laster is intriguing for many of the same reasons as Campbell as the Ohio native has ideal size (6'4 230) and and skills for the position in the B1G. He's young and inexperienced, but the well regarded recruit from Cleveland could be ready to make an impact early. Junior Jephete Matilus played in all 13 last season though mostly on special teams, as he picked up 8 tackles. He also won the team's "Offensive Work Team POY" for his efforts as the work team's running back. Three things: 1) I never knew such a thing existed. 2) That is awesome. 3) If he's willing to put in so much time and effort to helping the work team, imagine what he'll do this spring with an opportunity at his natural position at linebacker.
Soph Nick Rallis is the younger brother of former 2+ yr starter Mike Rallis, and like his older bro, what Nick lacks in physical gifts he makes up for in work ethic and practice. He's a little undersized at 5'11 and 227 but looked good last year in 10 appearances, and will definitely be in the mix.
Finally, incoming JUCO transfer Cody Poock should push for playing time immediately as well. The composite 3 star recruit and "Clay Matthews Hair All-Star" may be from Iowa, but JDMill and I both believe the part he's from- Okoboji- should be annexed to Minnesota because it's WAY too nice for Iowa. He tore up the JUCO ranks last year with 80 tackles, 8.5 TFL's and two picks (just for fun, he housed both of them) for an Iowa Western squad that went 11-1.
The DB's, while lacking some "down the road" depth, should be the position group most capable of replacing what they've lost for the coming season. Let's start with Brock Vereen, one of Minnesota's two best defensive players from a year ago, and a First-Team All-B1G selection from the coaches who played extremely well at not one but two positions. Because that's just how Brock rolls. He started all 12 games as a sophomore at corner in 2011 before being moved back to safety for 2012 where he started seven times including the final six games. In 2013 he started the first six games at safety before injuries to corners Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun forced a move back to corner for the Northwestern game, where he started and stayed for the rest of the year. Vereen was a leader and I'd say underrated as a player and athlete, as he made himself some CAISH at the combine last weekend with an impressive performance, bumping his stock from a late round bubble draft pick to the middle rounds at worst- or wherever his brother Shane's team the Patriots end up taking him.
The two other seniors who won't be back in 2014 are both former JUCO transfers. Martezz Shabazz played in every game last year and even got one start at corner vs Indiana. He played mostly as the nickel or fourth corner and despite a slight frame he still notched 2.5 TFL and even a half sack to go along with five pass-break ups. Jeremy Baltazar also played in all 13 games as a reserve, and snagged his only career pick against Nebraska.
While these three were important to the team's success in 2013, because of all the injuries and position shuffling the Gophers enter 2014 with plenty of talent with plenty of experience. Junior Eric Murray was impressive in his first year as a starting corner and assuming Wells is over the myriad of maladies that plagued him last year and Boddy-Calhoun is fully recoved from a season-ending knee injury suffered early last fall, then that takes care of your top 3 corners. Behind them is promising sophomore Jalen Myrick, senior converted receiver Marcus Jones (who was almost exclusively just a return man last year), and...that's where we get to the aforementioned "lack of down the road depth". Recruit Craig James (thankfully not the Craig James who may or may not have killed five hookers at SMU) won't be on campus until the summer and like Myrick last year he could see the field as a true freshman, but he was the only 2014 corner recruit. Still, as long as the top four guys stay healthy...looking for wood...found wood...knocked on wood...the Gophs are in good shape for 2014 at least.
At safety Minnesota returns three players who started at least two games in 2013, and the competition will be fierce between senior Cedric Thompson, and juniors Antonio Johnson and Demarius Travis. Thompson and Johnson had the most starts from a year ago and should start
neverending winter spring practices as the starters, but expect the talented Travis to push both for playing time. Behind those three are redshirt frosh Daletavious McGhee and senior Grayson Levine.