The safety position is a big question mark for the Golden Gophers heading into the 2011 season, and one particular player could make or break the success of the safeties this season. Sixth year senior Kim Royston is the key, and it was a break he suffered that still makes the production and health of a very good Big Ten player a question mark.
Royston, a high school star at Cretin Derham-Hall, left the state to go play for the hated rival Badgers, but when he didn't find playing time in Madison, he transferred back home to the U in 2008. After sitting out the season, he made a real impact in 2009 as a junior, helping the Gopher defense to a solid fifth in the Big Ten in both pass defense (QB's completed just 58% of their passes for 7.0 yards per attempt) and pass defense efficiency. Although he registered just one pick, he excelled in pass coverage with 6 pass break ups (second on the team), and finished third on the team in tackles with 86 (including 54 solo).
Then NINE defensive starters- all but Royston and SS Kyle Theret- graduated, leaving the two seniors to anchor a very young defense in 2010. But that plan fell apart when Royston broke his leg, knocking him out for the entire 2010 season, and to literally add insult to injury, Theret missed the first two games due to a team suspension. Not surprisingly, things didn't go so well.
The inexperienced secondary and the rest of the defense crumbled, resulting in one of the worst Gopher defenses in a long time. Royston and Theret made a good combination- Royston excelled in pass coverage but had no trouble supporting the run. Theret was a thumper against the run (5th on the team in 2009 with 73 tackles), and when used sparingly and smartly in pass coverage, he was ok, picking off 3 passes and breaking up another four in 2009.
But without Royston- and without anything even remotely resembling a suitable replacement- Theret was simply asked to do too much and play out of his comfort zone in 2010...
He was still his usual solid self against the run with 72 tackles, but had just 1 pick and 2 pass breakups (To give you an idea of the woeful pass coverage in 2010 - well besides finishing 10th in pass defense efficiency- in 2009 there were 5 guys with at least 5 pass break-ups; in 2010 there were zero). I was hard on Theret at times last year when he got burned, but looking back on it now, while it was certainly frustrating to watch, I'm not sure what else I should have expected. We knew all along Theret's strength was run support, but without Royston, defenses able to pick on him more in the passing game.
That is, when they weren't busy lighting up whoever else the Gophers tried to throw out there at the other safety spot (or just running the ball against one of the nation's worst rush defenses. You get the idea. 2010 sucked). True freshman James Manuel was first up, and while he LOOKS the part of a Big Ten safety at 6'2 and 214 pounds (and may very well end up being a good Big Ten safety) he was just overwhelmed as a freshman. He played in all 12 games and recorded 29 tackles and 1 pick, but after starting the first three games, he played as a reserve the rest of the season. Next up was juco transfer Christyn Lewis. He made two starts in Theret's absence against MTSU and USD, then was pulled when Theret came back against USC. That lasted one whole game, as Lewis replaced Manuel in the loss to Northern Illinois (has Chad Spann stopped running yet? I think he just scored another 60 yard TD. Right up the gut.) and more losses to Northwestern and Wisconsin. He was a reserve the rest of the way too.
It was about that time (if memory serves. If only the new and improved Gophersports.com had, you know, ARCHIVES like they used to) senior corner Ryan Collado was shifted back to safety. Jermo and I had talked a few times over Collado's career about how he played more like a safety than a corner, but it took the Gophers until halfway through his senior season to put him there, and it definitely helped. So too did switching Troy Stoudermire from receiver to corner, and by the end of the year, the safeties and secondary and defense improved, helping lead to upset wins over Illinois and Iowa to close the season.
Theret and Collado both graduated, leaving both starting spots up for grabs this season. IF he's anywhere close to 100% healthy, Royston will start at free safety. He's a proven, quality player in the secondary who is solid both against the run and the pass. The question still remains just how healthy that leg is, and whether he can play starter minutes over a full season. If he can, you have to feel much better about whomever the Gophers slot in at strong safety. If he can't, and he either has to play limited minutes, or just isn't healthy enough to play at the level we saw him at in 2009, well then that's where things get interesting.
FBT had a post earlier in the week explaining Troy Stoudermire's role as the "boundary corner" in Tracy Claeys' defense. It's an excellent and indepth look at his responsibilites and what they hope Troy can do (basically, lock down the receiver on the short side of the field, and blow up anything in the run game to his side), but it was also insightful to learn what Stoudermire's role can do for the rest of the secondary, especially the safeties:
Putting Troy at boundary allows Claeys to use a physical safety like Shady Salamon more in run support while letting Kim Royston -- who has the best natural cover skills of the Gopher safeties -- play towards the field side or drop back in cover 3. It will also potentially give Claeys the freedom and creativity to bring additional pressure on the blitz from multiple locations without tipping his hand. This, of course, is assuming Stoudermire can play the role of boundary corner the way the coaches expect.
This is a good time to bring up Salamon, a former teammate of Royston's and star running back at CDH. Shady played two seasons at running back for Minnesota, including three starts as a freshman, but got buried on the depth chart as a sophomore, and was eventually switched to defensive back. But he failed to make an impression there either, as despite all of the issues the Gophers had at safety last season, Salamon played almost exclusively on special teams. Even in the spring, he didn't make much of an impression on the coaches for most of camp.
Still, something changed those last few practices and in the offseason, as Salamon went from special teamer to potential starter at strong safety, as he's been playing with Royston almost exclusively so far this month. As FBT described, Salamon could be a great compliment to a healthy Royston just like Theret was, as Salamon excels in run support. Considering he's a former running back, it's possible he's a little more athletic than Theret and could be better in pass coverage too.
But without Royston? Well that's where Lewis and Manuel re-enter the picture. Those two have been getting a lot of reps at safety themselves so far in fall camp, and my guess is if Royston doesn't prove healthy enough to go, then it'll be Lewis at free safety and Manuel at SS. Both showed improvement in the spring and are rapidly gaining the coaches' trust, but I don't like the potential for either to be as a good as a healthy Royston could be.
So those are really the four to watch at safety in 2011. Sophomore Kenny Watkins, who appeared in three games in 2010, could push for playing time as well, and there could always be a freshman or two who plays their way into the mix. But whether we see an upgrade or downgrade in 2011 from the safety play in 2010, at least for me, depends entirely upon the health of Royston. If he's anywhere close to his 2009 form, then Salamon or whomever will be that much better beside him, and you'll see a definite improvement from 2010. If not, then it's likely up to Lewis and Manuel to make big improvements, or for Salamon to continue his improbable ascension from special teamer to starting Big Ten safety.