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Minnesota Gopher Football Spring Preview: Defense

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Some good news and some bad news as the Gopher defense enters a new era in 2011.

First the bad news: almost the entire front seven, and most of the secondary return from a terrible defense in 2010. And by terrible, I mean about on par with just about every defense we've seen the Gophers trot out for the past 60 or so years. They say defense wins championships, and the Gophers for decades have been lacking anything even remotely resembling a championship defense. And no, Joel, we're not talking about the ****ing Director's Cup championship. That doesn't count because nobody but you cares.

2010's defense was young, athletic and fast, and showed promise of better things to come- except the results were the same old, same old. They allowed 392.2 yds per game (8th in the B1G) and 33 points per game (9th). They actually allowed the fourth fewest passing yards per game in the league (200.8), but that's only because teams rarely had to pass to move the ball against them, allowing 191.4 yards per game at a whopping 5.3 yards per carry. Those aren't just by far the worst numbers in the Big Ten, those are some of the worst in the entire country. Oh and it gets better...or I guess worse: when teams did pass, they had little problem doing so, as Minnesota ranked 10th in pass efficiency defense allowing opposing QB's to complete 65% of their passes (!!!!) and 46% of their third down attempts. Yep, that was the worst in the Big Ten too. But most embarrasing of all was the team's pass rush- or a complete and total lackthereof. I know I said this last year but it bears repeating: You and three friends seriously could have jumped out of the stands and onto the field and not fared any worse rushing the passer than Minnesota's scholarship athletes did. The Gophers' 9 sacks for 59 yards were the worst in all of Division 1 football.

The good news? Yes, with a seemingly never-ending winter and Gopher hockey and basketball in the tank, let's definitely talk about the good news...

... For one, while all of those players from yet another awful defense are returning, the man who I feel is most responsible for it it is not: former defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove. Cosgrove was run out of Nebraska for running terrible defenses there, and in just two short seasons took what was a decent group under Ted Roof (I believe his official title is National Champion Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof) and got the results you see above.

I believe, partly because I'm naive (and partly because I'm going to follow and write about talk about Gopher football whether they're good, bad, or...well what they were under Brewster and Cosgrove), that there IS talent on this defense, and generally, when you get a ton of starters and contributors back the following season they improve. Generally. The Gophers return almost their entire two deep in the front seven, and most of their secondary. It should also be noted the defense played better in a late season win against Illinois and really well in the win over Iowa. They played a hand in defeating two Big Ten teams that went onto play in bowl games, so they showed as a group they can indeed play at this level.

But that's still not the best part and biggest piece of good news: for me, that comes in the form of new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. If he isn't the most underrated coordinator at a BCS conference school, he's certainly on the short list, as Claeys' defense seems to perform at a high level wherever he goes with Jerry Kill. Claeys' D was #1 in the MAC all three seasons he was with the Huskies, and that's not something to snicker at (mmmm Snickers!): the past two seasons the group ranked in the top 30 nationally in total defense, rush defense and scoring defense, including 14th in the country in 2010 allowing just 18.93 points per game. That, folks, is big time stuff right there. His defenses dominated at 1-AA Southern Illinois and D2 Saginaw Valley State before that. The man knows how to coach defense, and he's proven at three different stops that he can do it at whatever level he's coaching.

So while there's going to be some growing pains as this group of athletes adjusts to a new (and I would say right now a better) way of doing things, I expect better results from Minnesota's 2011 defense not just because we get so many guys back with experience, but because they're being coached by Claeys and his assistants who have proven for the past dozen years that they know what they're doing. I know I said this last year and ended up being disappointed but I'm going to say it again...I'm REALLY excited for our defense this year.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Gophers return their entire DLine from a year ago, minus one giant-sized tackle Jewan Edwards, who tipped the scale, and probably the earth, at at least 330 pounds. With that kind of size he had potential to be a force, but it just never worked out. Still, the interior line should be a strength in 2011. Seniors Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs could potentially form a pretty nice starting duo at tackle. Last year Kirksey, like so many Gopher defenders, didn't seem to build upon the promise he had shown in 2009, but let's hope the new scheme and coaching staff can get the most out of him, Jacobs, and the rest of this group. There's plenty of younger guys behind them for depth, but these are the guys who have clear shots at locking up the starting spots on the interior line.

They're going to have to be good, because I'm not sure how much confidence I have in our ends, a group that was totally underwhelming in 2010. Actually, we may have to lower the standards of "underwhelm" to quite grasp this one. Obviously your ends are just apart of a pass rush, but their primary job is to get up field, and whether it was against the pass or run, it just wasn't happening for these guys. Junior D.L. Wilhite showed enormous promise as a freshman, and was hoped to be the team's outside pass rusher, but and stop me if you've heard this before, it didn't happen last year. The potential is still certainly there for the young man to be a force on the outside, and he's going to have to be because the rest of the guys they tried there, like Matt Garin and Kendall Gregory-McGhee, were even less productive. There is opportunity galore for whoever works their tail off in the spring and proves to the coaches they're ready.

The wildcard here is enormous sophomore Ra'Shede Hageman, who converted from TE to DE last spring and grew to almost 290 pounds, but was just never a factor. He was then suspended for the last four games because of academics, and his status is a real question mark. IF he can get his grades in order, he then needs to figure out how to make good on his potential and ability. He could be a real difference maker up front (and if he stays around 280 or 290 it's likely he shifts inside), but right now we can just count him on a bonus if he comes through.

LINEBACKER

Riddle me this, Gopher fans: when was the last time Minnesota had more good linebackers than available spots? You can ponder that from now to whenever winter will finally end (which could be Monday or, at the rate we're going, never) and you still probably can't come up with a season that was post-1967. This is the deepest and most experienced unit on the team, as everyone from 2010 returns, including six players who started at least two games. Gary Tinsley was not just the best linebacker or defender from a year ago, but he might have been the Gophs' best player too. He led the team with 95 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss, and is the leading contender for all-conference status in 2011. However, there's a good chance he doesn't even return to the middle and is instead pushed outside.

Here's hoping, anyway. That's because Florida Gator transfer Brendan Beal is eligible after sitting out all of last year, and the sophomore should be worth the wait. The former Army game All-American was heavily recruited out of high school with prototypical size at 6'3 and 250, but got lost in the shuffle at UF. If he's as good as advertised, he could push Tinsley as the best linebacker and best defender on the team. IF Beal can lock down the middle and Tinsley moves outside, that leaves just one starting spot for four juniors who started at least two games each last year: Keanon Cooper, Mike Rallis, Spencer Reeves and Ryan Grant each bring something a little different to the table, and with a new coaching staff and scheme in place, the race is wide open.

Something I saw in the comments section over at FBT, and have wondered myself: with so many good candidates available at OLB, and such a clusterf... um, well lack of quality, proven talent available in the secondary, would the coaches think about moving Cooper to SS? He's listed at around 210 pounds, and his strength and quickness, as well as his experience, would be a real asset in the secondary. He'd certainly have to work hard on his coverage skills, but it would add a real thumper to the secondary and some desparately needed talent. Not sayin', I'm just sayin'.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The best news the Gophers have received the entire offseason was that senior safety Kim Royston was granted a sixth year of eligibility after a broken leg cost him all of 2010. Royston is the leader and playmaker this seconday desperately needs, because after him the rest of this group is, well...the phrase "Gong Show" comes to mind. We have one other DB returning who I think can be counted on, and he only played the position for half of last season. Senior Troy Stoudermire's transformation from receiver to corner was pretty amazing in hindsight when you consider he was thrown into it halfway through the season. Still, by the last four games or so he was productive and solid in both coverage and in run support, and if he's willing to work with the new staff, he should improve in both.

But that's it for anybody else we could even remotely call solid or dependable. Junior Michael Carter is one of the few players on this defense, and the entire team, who really, truly possesses all-conference ability and potential, but your guess is as good as mine if he ever fulfills it. He looked fantastic as a freshman in 2009 and then last year- wait for it- he disappointed. I know, shocking. That so didn't happen to anybody else. Carter's lack of development, and perhaps even regression, probably hurt the most though just because there was so little depth and talent available behind him. Like Hageman, he too was suspended for the final four games of the year because of grades, but it just as well could have been to give him time to pull his head out of his a** and straighten himself out. Just like last year, it would be fantastic to see him come to spring practice hungry and ready to compete and improve and fulfill his potential, but unlike last year I'm not counting on it happening. I HOPE it happens, but at this point I'll believe it when I see it.

After Carter, there's just not a lot here to really get excited about, but I'm hoping the coaching staff can prove this group just wasn't well coached and wasn't ready last year instead of just not being talented enough. I'd love to see some of the practices when the coaching staff is talking to the DB's and they learn something new and go "Wait what? Really? That's possible? I can do that? And IT WORKS? No way!" Yep, preparation and coaching can go a long ways, and it's going to have to with the rest of these guys. Seniors Johnny Johnson and Christyn Lewis looked lost at both corner and safety last year, and yet they're some of the leading contenders for playing time (there is a third senior, Shady Solomon, but considering he shouldn't see the field on defense under any circumstances, I didn't mention him. Coolio?). Junior Kyle Henderson and sophomore Brock Vereen both contributed last season but didn't look great doing it, yet each brings something to the table that COULD be positive. Both are decent options for the nickel corner spot, but god help us if they're the #2 guy opposite Stoudermire. Youngsters Tyrone Bouie (who redshirted last year) and Kenny Watkins have some promise, and they, like the incoming JUCO transfers and freshmen, will be given every opportunity to compete this spring and summer in hopes that a few of them prove they belong. Heck, if you're reading this right now and thinking you could play DB for the Gophers, contact Coach Kill and Claeys. Or pull a Willie "Mays" Hayes and show up to the free practices in full gear, and when DB drills start just jump onto the field and show 'em your stuff because they can use all the help they can get back there.

That leaves us with the other safety spot beside Royston, and if Cooper isn't moved back and if one of the aforementioned slog of candidates don't emerge, your starter just might be James Manuel. He was thrown to the wolves last season as a true freshman and proved he just wasn't ready, but he has the potential to be a decent Big Ten safety. Having a guy like Royston there for Manuel to learn from and lean on is important, but he, or whomever starts there, is going to have to pull their weight or opposing offenses will pick on them early and often.

So while the DB's are just a giant conudrum, and I'm not sure what we have at end, our tackles and especially linebackers have me cautiously optimistic for the 2011 defense. Heck, I'm even bordering on dangerously optimistic thinking about Beal, Tinsley, and of the other four guys at OLB running around hitting people and creating havoc. Should be a VERY interesting spring for Coach Claeys and his staff and hey, look on the bright side: at least Cosgrove is gone.