Minnesota Golden Gopher Football: 5 Questions for 2014 - Defense

Gopher Gridiron

Questions about the 2014 defense: we've got 'em. But really, all we want to know is, who will sharpen the knives?

Brandon Kirksey stood confidently in Chicago's McCormick Place convention center for the annual Big Ten Media Days, a 72 hour blitz where chosen players and coaches would undergo a series of uncomfortable and awkward interviews and respond with equally flavorless creamed corn responses. Most of the comedy provided at such events is unintentional, like every time Bert got to the podium and made some gas bag remark wearing the visible bloat of a cheap hangover. Yet it was Kirksey, the newest captain of the Minnesota defense, who made the comment with staying power back in the summer of 2010. Once muttered, the wheels starting grinding about how I could eventually co-opt this phrase for my own selfish blogging purposes:

We feel like we're gonna get out there and sharpen our knives.

Nothing invokes something as ferociously bad-ass like the imagery of your 300 lbs. defensive tackles hacking off limbs with machetes. Or if you prefer to avoid scenarios that occur in the Congo, the thought of big BK sitting at the head of the table with a giant carving fork and knife is a much more lurid response than the trite comparison to war or something-something one game one play at a time mumble mumble. It's the type of color that sticks with you amid a sea of banality that is college football media relations, a soundbite you cherish because you won't hear something that entertaining for years.

Multiple layers of irony here. One, Brandon Kirksey is the name of a chef in Seattle (what I wouldn't give for salmon carpaccio right about now) and no, BK didn't shift gears after graduating. Two, that 2010 defense was awful and proceeded to get Time Brewster fired (avoid the bad puns, avoid the bad puns!). That doesn't take away from Kirksey's awesome quote, nor will it prevent me from stealing it right now.

2014 is all about who will step up to plunge that blade into the proverbial belly of our enemies. I mean that figuratively of course, since we can all agree murder is bad and people can't play football whilst in jail. The 2013 defense was good, much better than we're used to around these parts -- especially when it came to preventing the other team from scoring. Thus, the questions for 2014 are all about what it will take for the defense to get even better, or whether our defenders will collectively stumble and end up stabbing themselves in the leg with a Spyderco drop point.

Under Pressure?

We can all look back with warm feels of every time ‘Shede ate a guy and be sad that our favorite mechanoid disguised as a football player has moved on to bigger and better - namely paying for everyone's Waffle House orders. It will be difficult to replace his 24 career TFLs and other measures of offensive disruption, since defensive tackles that look like Hageman might as well be unicorns to Minnesota fans. Last year, only 3 or 4 defensive tackles across college football could have been swapped for Shede without a violent uprising. Dude was my favorite Gopher in a long while.

What makes me reach for the dat Costco brand fear bourbon doh is thinking about whom else besides Thieren Cockran will force opposing coordinators to proclaim, "this young fellow is a disruptive agent to our offensive objectives; we aim to quell his ability to do so therein!" Our opponent's coordinators have been secretly replaced with their 1920's analogs. Claeys' entire strategy along the defensive line since he arrived is to rotate heavily and generate an inside/outside threat, force protection scheme issues and open up a flavor of zone pressures. Unless we're playing Michigan: then the strategy was to keep Gardner in the pocket and go nickel appealing to Jo-bu for Devin's turn into a pigskin throwing pumpkin. The available options are lunch-pail guys that could trip themselves to 5.5 TFLs, true freshmen or 220 lbs. specialists. I'm gonna need a chaser of gasoline with a straight razor back.

The coaches say there won't be as many big plays from the tackle spot without Hageman but the rotation will be more experienced and consistent. I say that unless you plan on funneling backs to the alleys and let the linebackers clean it up, big disruptive plays behind the line of scrimmage are readily important to the concept of defensive football. That and making sure the other guys don't score, I think that's the objective of the game.  Right now the expectation is one guy - Cockran - will supply the bulk of these stuffs, and that's a problem. Someone else has to become a consistent threat, otherwise all protections will be skewed in TC's direction. I don't have high expectations of Cameron Botticelli or Scott Ekpe, the latter of whom curiously had more tackles for loss as a true freshman, to suddenly become TFL vending machines. Alex Keith is a platoon guy; Hendrick Ekpe is a mystery. The Shede replacements are still 2-3 years off.

Hold me.

Hey New Guy: Tackle Maybe?

Production lost from the line should be glory gained by the ‘backers, who now boast the defense's most impossibly athletic given height, weight and speed guy: De'Vondre Campbell. Our Predator Hair savior was a package-only player for most of 2013 as he got acclimated to playing real live B1G MANBALL and picked up heavy objects for the first time in his life. Basically, he was the facsimile of 2011 Ra'Shede: dude who flashes moments of playing MURDERBALL while everyone else is a mere football player. He's a starter now, and he'll be asked to do awesome things now that he's almost 240 lbs. of 4.5ish speed.

Damien Wilson is tasked with tackling everything in sight, as he's the most capable middle linebacker the Gophers have trotted out ages. To reach Pete Najarian levels, he'll need to either A) grow a pony-tail B) slang around options at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange or C) stay on the field more against spread teams. If there is any weakness in his game, it was Claeys opting to play more nickel with Aaron Hill and James Manuel/Campbell (not that this was a bad strategy given the abundance of skillful defensive backs we've accumulated). He's 10 lbs. lighter than his playing weight of last year, presumably because the coaches wanted him to drop the el-bees so he could bust out the Clothesline from Hell on shallow crosses. With the length of Campbell and Jack Lynn, plus an even better secondary than last year, Claeys should be able to get more creative within base packages and allow Wilson to pick his teeth with the bones of slot receivers.

Speaking of Lynn, he's the most prominent of a youth movement at ‘backer that will culminate in 2015/2016 now that Cody Poock's knee is 100% less anteriorly supported. He's a wild card for sure, and it was cute how the staff made him ‘compete' at MLB with Wilson during the spring of 2013. He's tall, long and athletic, which is the new prototype of OLB Claeys is recruiting now; to be pursued at OLB for this staff means you were probably a wide receiver at some point in your high school career. Anyway, if Lynn can hold his own, this will be the best Minnesota trio of starting ‘backers since 2009. That's the question for 2014 - what does Lynn do?

Beyond the trio? Baby faces. Our backups are the WWE's struggling-to-get-over-with-crowds lower card.

Squad or SQUUUUUUAADDDD?

I've never been so excited to watch a position group play defense for the Gophers like I am for this secondary. There were YEARS when I closed my eyes on defense and prayed the field didn't spontaneously combust into an ether fire, and now, I'm the one cooking with red phosphate. Love you Jay Sawvel, please don't ever leave me sad and blue. You don't know this yet Jay, but breaking your contract with the U requires either a tithing of your first born or a picnic basket of other tortures, like running PR for the Irrevocable Life Trust of Ralph Engelstad. Those U lawyers are sure creative!

The questions I have are few, mostly concerning who among Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun can return to shit kicking form the quickest and lay claim to that Field CB spot. The boundary is secure for at least the next two years with Eric Murray (Daddy, what's an N-F-L cornerback?) and having Cerberus start at safety is an unexpected luxury.  Yards per Attempt allowed nudged higher in 2013 from the previous year, though almost all of that is explained by mustard gas attacks at the hands of David Fales and Gardner before Brock Vereen took over at corner. Remember, Wells was a hollow man last year; passing D gave up almost as many yards in the 4 FBS game tilt from NMST to Michigan (1145) than in the last 7 combined (1263).

But How?

By traditional measures (traditional meaning which stats the NCAA hath officially decreed to recognize and collect from their ivory tower), we didn't appreciably improve in any defensive category over 2012, sans third down and red zone conversion rate allowed... and points allowed. Red zone rate was deceiving at that, since FBS opponents conned their way into striking distance an incremental 11 times over 2012. Yards per pass didn't improve, yard per rush marginally improved, TFLs, sacks, passer rating, turnovers generated, long plays from scrimmage were all samsies or worse.

What sorcery was it that the staff conjured to make opponents score less? Unabashed luck or randomness is a rather unnerving answer (yo math, piss off you serpent!) and improved red down conversion rate alone can't whitewash away 40+ cumulative points.

The most probable explanations, in order of decreasing tomfoolery: 1) opponent adjusted drive defense was better 2) field position and time of possession, two phantom interaction effects, improved dramatically 3) Tracy Claeys is a wizard with a funny accent.

Understanding the source of what made the defense allow less points is fundamental to the pre-season gnashing of teeth whether it was due in large part to chance (¯\_(ツ)_/¯could be?) or something way more awesome, like a structural change in underlying badassery.

Do you even lift bro?

I promise this isn't a juvenile putdown of the program's new yoga routines, since ya gotta tease those chakras y'all. As in lift, what does it take to lift this defense from good to great, allowing less than 20 points per game great?

I'm not talking elite, the ‘is Joe Flacco?' or Narduzzi war machine kind. How about an honest to goodness vestige of formidable defense, a species last encountered in the wild circa 1999? Genus type Tyrone Carter would be a start. Defenders clutching knifes in their teeth at all three levels would help as well.

Just saying ‘allow less yards per rush, get more TFLs/sacks, and intercept the ball more' is a tautology; fart-sniffers imprisoned with 500 word shackles waft that kind of flatulence with regularity, but folks who don't like their intelligence slapped with an Isotoner could already deduce that by looking at cfbstats.com.

In reality, improvement from good to great will arise from a combination of tactical and ability-based enhancements. That change will come from the back 4 of the defense downfield, since improvements in the ability for Minnesota's CBs will allow more dynamic scheme opportunities without sacrificing coverage zones. The ability of Murray and BBC/Wells/whomever to handle receivers on an island frees up Claeys to produce more Robber and Cover 3 back-halves, which in turn gets a safety up in run fits for a pseudo 4-4 front. Blitz packages get more creative as the secondary gives the line and ‘backers more to pierce the backfield armor. More athletic CBs playing a mix of press-man, quarters and zone affords Claeys the opportunity to get them more involve in the run game. ‘Rangier' linebackers make the holes in the zone even smaller and force quarterbacks into more precise throws. Sure tackling linebackers with more instinctive fits puts offensive execution at a premium and potentially a need for additional blockers. More pressure generated by the defensive line forces protection scheme changes, opening the door up for more effective blitz pressures.

Looping it full circle for the mouth-breathers: a better defense needs better players. Do you even lift bro?

Coda

The last paragraph is admittedly optimistic, which is standard practice of CFB blogger season previews; the guy leaving will be replaced by someone better, because of course! I do think it's fair to challenge those assumptions, namely that whomever starts at the Field corner spot will be better than a guy who is now a #1 safety in the NFL. Sure, Brock was playing out of position at CB and that versatility is what got him drafted, but the two guys vying as his replacement were also injured most/all of last year. The collective secondary sits at the high end of the experience curve, though that doesn't necessarily make them better players.

Same applies to linebackers. We collectively heap praise on Wilson's shoulders, yet he wasn't among the 16 best 'backers in the B1G according to one Phil Steele. Not that preseason lists mean jack shit, since Steele put a guy with only 33 tackles last year on his, but still.  Wilson will need to put up Lee Campbell numbers to match fan expectations, which is a casual reminder that Campbell didn't earn All-B1G honors despite ranking 3rd in the conference with 119 tackles. Minnesota has not placed a linebacker on any All Conference team since 2000, if you want some perspective. I'm confident that DeVondre as a full-timer will be just as effective, if not more so, than Manuel was, since James was the same player in 2012 as he was in 2013: undersized, tacking bad angles and a stop-gap for craven lack of athleticism at the position. Campbell could also end up simply what he was last year: a platoon player. Lynn is pulling the reverse Mike Rallis, which is more than a little scary. Also a factor not to be ignored: this position group has a new assistant coach.

Defensive line is a giant collection of 'oh shit' and exasperated sighs. Losing 'Shede is one thing. Losing 'Shede and RoJo without replacement is another entirely. Since most are quick to slap the white defensive tackle archetype on Botti, Scott Ekpe needs to make a major leap, as does.... somebody else. That I can't even name a guy who could reasonably be asked to contribute at a rotation level at DT is a major concern, as it looks like this kid will assume the role by default.

However, the biggest ace in the hole is the man who stirs the drink: Claeys. Minnesota has their best (only?) defensive coordinator since David Gibbs or Greg Hudson, depending on your preference. Claeys is consistently good at what he does, with 2011 the lone clunker of a season on his FBS resumé. That steadiness is reason enough to inspire confidence: when Tracy suggests he'll be disappointed if the defense doesn't continue to improve, it holds a little more weight than, if say, I said it.

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