We looked at the offense and fortunately I didn't do the defense depth chart until today considering a potential starter at MLB is no longer with the team. The defense requires even more guess-work than the offensive line. Seven starters are gone and while some of their replacements are clear others are not, and the potential second-string guys could be just about anyone.
Overall, I am OK with our likely starters. There is some talent, some speed and some guys with Big Ten ability. On paper, as of June 1st, what we lack is depth at nearly every position. Let's take a look.
Three of the eleven starters are iffy because of suspensions or injury and then I'm confident in about five of the back ups listed above. Let's go position by position and I'll share my logic with you.
DE - this is actually a young and promising group of Golden Gophers. Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite both may be your starting defensive ends for the next three seasons. Wilhite showed some promise during his freshman year and Hageman is officially making the move from TE to DE. His 6-6, 270 lb frame is impressive; we'll see if he can put that athleticism and massive body to good work this fall in his first season at DE. Matt Garin and Kendal-Gregory McGhee both were given a year to develop and now as redshirt freshmen will hopefully provide some pass rushing ability. Really this entire group is promising and while I don't want to be viewing 2010 as a developmental year, these guys will be getting their first real taste of a full Big Ten schedule and hopefully they grow into a very good unit down the line.
DT - Looking at the starters, this is arguable our strongest group on the defense. Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey both have experience, both are very good size and have both been productive. Kirksey is 6-2, 295 and was a regular last year in the DT rotation. His Gopher highlight (to date) is the forced fumble against Air Force that Nate Triplett then took to the house. Jewhan Edwards is 6-2, 330 and I believe is poised to have a big junior season. These two starters are a solid combo who are both capable of stopping the run and quick enough to get to the quarterback. After that the depth is very thin. Anthony Jacobs is potentially going to be used at DT and that adds some talent and depth to this group. Jacobs has been a defensive end and started four games last year. He could be an ideal pass rushing substitute at tackle. After that we get to freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Sean Ferguson is a true freshman who has the size to compete right away and the mammoth tackle would likely be able to plug the middle but what he can actually contribute is a huge question mark.
LB - The Gophers graduated the best linebacking corp we have seen in years. Lee Campbell, Simoni Lawrence and Nate Triplett were reliable, smart and talented linebackers. They'll be replaced by a group inexperienced though athletically gifted backers hoping to fill the void. At MLB the likely starter will be Gary Tinsley. The junior is currently suspended but most reports / speculation state that he'll likely be cleared to play. TInsley came on strong at the end of the year recording 10 tackles in the Iowa game. After Tinsley it was supposed to be Sam Maresh, but that plan is on hold for a year so who I'm taking a wild guess and putting Brent Singleton in as the back up MLB. Sophomore and walk-on Ryan Grant is also a possibility but I doubt it.
On the weakside Keanon Cooper was assumed to be the lock as the starter. But according to other reports, Aaron Hill is pushing Cooper for the starting role. The walk-on from St. Charles, MO is a big unknown. At the very least he is pushing Cooper and giving him some competition. Cooper showed some flashes last fall that he may become a very good Big Ten linebacker. The Dallas Skyline native had some big games in 2009 but also at times was out of position. Cooper is athletic and is talented enough to be not only be the best linebacker on this team but also could be one of the best in the conference.
Strongside was assumed to be another Skyline product but there is a better chance that the starter will be converted safety, Mike Rallis. I for one am glad to see this position change as Rallis was just too slow be in a Big Ten secondary. But he has good size and although he doesn't have secondary speed, he does posses more than enough speed to play linebacker. In the spring game Rallis was often making plays in and around the ball. Spencer Reeves is also a decent sized and athletic linebacker. I would have no problem with him being the starter and this is a rare position of relative depth on this defense.
CB - There is one sure thing when it comes to the corners. Michael Carter is going to start. I have high expectations for Carter in part because he is very talented and got significant playing time as a true freshman. And also in part because he is the best thing we have going for us in coverage. Opposite Carter will likely be Ryan Collado. He has had an up and down Gopher career and has been on the wrong end of far too many big plays. Collado is an excellent tackler but his coverage skills have left more to be desired. But his experience and the lack of other starting caliber corners means he'll likely be the starter in week 1. Behind those guys it gets even shakier. Dwight Tillman is a JUCO transfer who presumably will get an opportunity to play but rumors persist that he will not be admitted and may not even be a Gopher this fall. Brock Vereen is a true freshman who may be forced into action early. And Tyrone Bouie is also a true freshman who may have to play rather than get a chance to redshirt. Christyn Lewis is a JUCO transfer expected to play corner but he has been on campus all spring and played safety during the spring game. That may have been because of our lack of depth there at the time. If he gets moved back to corner that would alleviate some concern over our depth at the position. Johnny Johnson is also a possibility here.
S - This was supposed to be the strength of our defense. Kyle Theret is a three-year returning starter and Kim Royston is also a returning starter after sitting out a transfer season. But Theret is currently suspended and Royston is returning from a broken leg. Not exactly the stability we were planning on. Assuming these guys are good to go for week one and are full strength this position is a strength and should give our secondary some stability. Theret will likely be playing this fall and will finish his Gopher career as a four-year starter. He'll come into the season with nine interceptions which is good for 6th on the Gopher all-time list. Kim Royston is a Wisconsin transfer who started every game in 2009 finishing as the team's third leading tackler. After these seniors, much like the rest of the defense, it is a crapshoot.
JUCO transfer Hershel Thornton, if he makes it to campus, will likely back up Theret at strong safety. Redshirt freshman, Kenny Watkins is as good a bet as any to back up Royston. Shady Solomon has been moved to safety so based solely on the fact that he is an upper-classman I would expect he'll get some playing time in a reserve role. If a true freshman were to get any time James Manuel is the best bet, but lets all hope he gets a redshirt year.
The ranks are thin on defense. I'm fairly comfortable with the starting 11. Three-quarters of the secondary is experienced and reliable. The interior of the defensive line is actually very strong. The ends are very talented. And the linebackers have some athleticism. What we lack is experience and players we know what to expect from.
This depth chart will likely be different in August but to the best of my knowledge this is my best guess.