Among Gopher fans, at this point, it's fairly well known that defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has traditionally run a pretty strait-forward 4-3 defensive scheme. Claeys expects his linemen to get upfield and cause problems in the backfield, and he expects disciplined assignments from linebackers and d-backs.
And it has worked. Last year Claeys' Northern Illinois defense, among all MAC conference teams, allowed the fewest total TD's, fewest passing yards/game, fewest total yards/game, fewest first downs and fewest points/game.
Now, the MAC isn't the B1G, and Claeys had a few years at NIU to build up to that, but those are some pretty impressive results.
So we should be excited and happy for Claeys to bring his defensive schemes to Minnesota, right? Absolutely. That's great, excited stuff, and for the long run, I have no doubt that Claeys has the ability to build the Gophers into a solid B1G defense. But what about this year? Does Claeys have the right personnel to run his defensive scheme at Minnesota this year?
The inside of the D-line should be fairly locked up with a couple of near 300-pounders in returning Senior starters Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs. Following those two you've got what is perhaps a slightly more murky picture.
As mentioned, Tracy Claeys expects his defensive linemen to get upfield and wreak havoc in the defensive backfield. The fact that the Gophers couldn't even get to double-digits in sacks last season and ranked dead last in the conference in that category by a landslide tells us that we weren't very good in the general Wreaking Havoc category (which is measured using the formula ((S+TFL+GBA)OA)/CC where S=sacks, TFL=tackles for loss, GBA=general bad-assness, OA=overall awesomeness (on a scale of 10), and CC=coaching competancy... it's science).
Ra'Shede Hageman is listed as a DE on the roster, but as FBT pointed out last week, Hageman appears to be more primed (see what I did there?... if you read FBT you know what I'm talkin' about) to play DT. If that is the case you've got Kendall Gregory-McGhee (KGM for short because I'm not typing that name over and over) and D.L. Wilhite as the likely starters at DE.
While KGM and DLW, according to reports, have seemed to benefit from Claeys more aggressive "get your ass upfield and fill an F'ing gap on your way to the QB" style, you've still got to be a bit concerned based on their past production.
It's been well-documented here at TDG that we believe the linebacker group is the strongest position area on the team. The entire 2010 starting LB group is back: Tinsley, Cooper & Rallis. So there's your starters right? Um, not so fast.
Brendan Beal is a sophomore out of Pennsylvania that first went to Florida (you know, the football powerhouse) where he sat out due to a medical redshirt in 2009, after which he decided to transfer to MN. Beal was a 1st team USA Today All-American on defense in HS, and was a member of ESPN's 150 class. At 6'3", 245lbs, Beal has prototypical B1G linebacker size. (Also, have you seen this guy? Beal's neck appears to be bigger than his head, which is to say that he's got a huge neck, but is not to say that he has a small head... I would never say that. Seriously, the dude's neck size is staggering. And he's got a friendly enough smile, but underneath that smile you kind of get the impression that he's got a mean streak. So he's got that going for him, which is nice.) All of this means that Beal is most likely your starting MLB, leaving somebody on the outside looking in.
Add to that the fact that you've got Spencer Reeves who has shown some potential, and Ryan Grant who has seen playing time and shown promise (not to mention being the kind of smart, hard-working player a guy like Kill prefers), and you've got 6 guys who have the potential to bring talent to the LB position.
So, some questions at D-line, and a potential embarrassment of riches at LB.
I believe Beal has the middle locked up, with Cooper and Rallis probably holding down the outside spots. I've heard suggestions that Cooper could be moved to Safety, but I don't see it. This leaves Tinsley.
First of all, Tinsley is versatile, so there are some options here. He played D-line in HS, but at 6'1", 237lbs he's undersized to regularly play line in the B1G. Having said that, Tinsley is talented, quick and a solid tackler, which may make him a good option as a situational outside rusher in obvious passing situations. He may also be used in passing downs to replace Beal as there's been some discussion that Beal is perhaps a better run defender and leaves a bit to be desired if he has to cover anyone.
I'll admit, considering the talent and depth at the LB position, I've been thinking that a 3-4 scheme might better suite this group of personnel, and when I set out to write this piece, I thought I might come to that conclusion. The reality, however, is that if the scheme is strait-forward and takes advantage of the athleticism and size of the d-linemen, instead of calling for them to constantly stunt, then we probably have enough up front to run a good 4-3 and allow our LB talent to sub in and out depending on the situation to keep them fresh.
But the depth at D-line isn't near what it is at LB, so there are certainly situations where having an extra LB on the field as a stand-up pass rushing lineman or to show blitz before dropping into coverage will probably be a reality.
None of this is to say that the defensive scheme will change from what Claeys has run in the past. I would still expect Claeys to run a strait-forward, but aggressive, 4-3 scheme, subbing in talent and speed when warranted.