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Gopher Football 2012 - Projecting the Defense

Football season is now officially over and we are just days into the 2012 season. Which means I am late on starting to preview the 2012 Gophers. I've been perusing other fine Big Ten blogs and have seen some interesting ways of previewing their respective teams.

Some teams in the Big Ten have some drama going on, whether it is coaching issues or NFL departures or transfers or significant graduations or other drama. Iowa losing five running backs over the last year and a half is dominating their headlines along with the departure of six seniors on defense and Riley Reiff at LT. Penn State is losing seven seniors on defense, most of their offensive line and their first coaching change in decades is causing a bit of drama. Wisconsin is also losing most of their entire offensive line and nearly all of their offensive coaching staff has moved to Pittsburgh.

Illinois and Ohio State have the usual coaching staff changes to fill their offseason discussion points. Northwestern and Michigan State each are losing their QB starters for the past 13 years. Then you have teams like Michigan, Indiana, Purdue, Nebraska and Minnesota who are bringing back their key pieces and can just start looking forward to the 2012 season; drama free (mostly).

Yes, for what feels like the first time in years (though it probably wasn't really that long) the Gophers enter an offseason that appears to be drama free. We return most of our starters, there will be no major coaching staff changes for what really IS the first time in YEARS and we can just look forward to the development of everyone on the roster which should hopefully lead to improved play on the field.

So let's start to take a look at the 2012 Gopher defense. I want to start with the pieces that we lose, in order of importance.

Players Lost

1 - Kim Royston - the Big Ten's second leading tackler, Kim Royston was the one guy in the secondary that Gopher fans could rely on. He also made two huge plays that essentially won games for us knocking down Miami (OH)'s final pass attempt in the end zone and then recovering the onside kick as we beat Iowa (again). Royston will be missed for his leadership as much as his talent.
2 - Gary Tinsley - The team's starting MLB, 2nd leading tackler, led the team with 9.0 TFLs and 4.0 sacks. He started the last 24 Gopher football games, was a very good linebacker for the Gophers and one of the more underrated MLBs in the conference. Hopefully there won't be a huge dropoff with the highly anticipated Brendan Beal or Aaron Hill who has received quite a bit of playing time over the last couple years waiting to step into his starting role.
3 - Anthony Jacobs - Jacobs was a player who certainly improved over his four years on the field. He made 26 starts over his career and finished with five sacks. The Northfield native was a four-star recruit out of high school and while he never was as dominant as some were hoping he'd be, he was a very solid DT.
4 - Brandon Kirksey - Really had a disappointing SR season in my opinion but considering what is behind he and Jacobs on the depth chart, he will be sorely missed as a valuable starter. As a JR he recorded 28 tackles and 5.5 TFLs, as a SR his numbers dropped to 19 and 1.

(below this line are guys who played a high number of snaps but their loss is less significant)

5 - Kyle Henderson - starting corner who will be replaced by our more talented corner who missed most of last year with a broken arm. After transferring from D2 Mankato, Henderson started 10 games over his final two years of eligibility. Solid player but I do not believe we will be yearning for the likes of Henderson in the future. The play of his career was probably the sack and forced fumble in the Iowa game that kick started the Gopher comeback and victory.
6 - Christyn Lewis - JUCO transfer who started most of the games at safety in 2011. Lewis had good size but often appeared to be the man to blame on broken coverages and big pass plays. Youth will be replacing Lewis and the hope is that it will be an improvement.

(below this line are guys who added depth but were not regular contributors)

7 - Johnny Johnson - appeared in just eight games as a senior recording six tackles.
8 - Shady Salamon - started 2 game and appeared in 10 as a senior but was rarely a factor. Good team guy who moved from RB to the defense looking for any way to contribute and get on the field.

Players Returning

Five starters to replace isn't usually a great place to be but considering Henderson will very likely be replaced by Troy Stoudermire, Tinsley's replacement may be just fine and replacing Christyn Lewis is a good thing; the only major holes on defense will be at DT. So let's move on to who will be returning (in order of significance of course) starting with the guys who are going to be starters and guys that I have the utmost confidence in...

1 - Troy Stoudermire - getting Stoudermire back after a medical redshirt will be a gift from the football gods. The secondary wasn't very good last year, getting Troy back will be huge for both the pass defense and the return game. His 2 picks led the team and he only played in four games.
2 - Keanon Cooper
- fastest man on the team has started 22 games in his Sophomore and Junior years. He was playing very well by the end of last year and I expect that with an offseason without any coaching or scheme changes he will excel in 2012.
3 - Mike Rallis
- Edina kid with 18 career starts in the last 2 years. Rallis is a hard working kid who often seems to be making plays just by being where he should be, when he should be there. Not the most athletic or big linebacker in the league but he is reliable.
4 - Brock Vereen
- Made some very nice plays in 2011 but also gave up a handful of big ones, but Vereen improved throughout the year and I expect he will also benefit from an offseason hearing the same voices and schemes and drills as he heard a year ago.
5 - Ra'Shede Hageman
- Former TE turned DE turned DT, Hageman and his improvement will be vital to the succes of the Gopher defense in 2012. With the loss of our two starting DTs Hageman must be able to step in and be productive from the inside. His final game of 2011 saw him record 2 sacks and force a fumble in the win over Illinois so maybe he is starting to get it and will be primed for a breakout JR season.

(after the jump are starters who just have more question marks than the ones above)

6 - Ben Perry - I never thought I'd be putting his two-star recruit up this high but the kid from Southlake, Texas started all 12 games at DE as a freshman. His numbers will have to improve but he clearly has enough talent and has the confidence of the coaching staff. A big year from Perry would help tremendously.
7 - Brendan Beal
- Might be the starting MLB for your 2012 Gophers, might be a dominant force in the middle or he might not play much at all or he might be injured again. If Beal can finally live up to his reputation as a four-star talent who was good enough to earn a scholarship at Florida, then Beal will help this defense out a ton next year.
8 - D.L. Wilhite
- Started 8 games as a sophomore and 8 games as a junior notching 3 sacks. Getting pressure on the QB is imperative and Wilhite will need to be helping in that department.

(positions of greater concern, starters who may lose their jobs to JUCOs or freshmen)

9 - James Manuel (S) - I assume that Manuel will be starting at safety, at least to start the spring. Good size and by all accounts is very athletic but for whatever reason he wasn't able to wrestle more playing time away from others in the secondary. I expect he'll get every opportunity this year but he'll also be pushed by the trio of JUCOs coming to the secondary.
10 - Eric Jacques
(DT) - At this point I assume Jacques will be the starting DT. Saw action in seven games last year as a sophomore. There is probably a better chance that this starting spot gets taken by a JUCO transfer but that has yet to materialize.

(key reserves)

11 - Michael Carter (CB/S) - Not really sure where Carter will fit in the 2012 defense but if he could just improve a bit he could be very valuable. He may be your starting nickle corner and there are rumors that he will move back to safety. Or he'll be in Kill's doghouse (likely for good reason) and be an inconsistent DB. Him stepping up his game would be huge but he's getting three new JUCO DBs to compete with for playing time.
12 - Michael Amaefula
(DE) - top reserve defensive end who started four games last year as a true freshman. Nobody saw that coming. Now with his first full offseason to get stronger and improve his craft, Amaefula should be an improved player who is a key part of the 2012 Gopher defense.
13 - Aaron Hill
(LB) - Possibly could be your starting MLB and at the very least will be key reserve linebacker. Once healed up he appeared in the final nine games of the year.
14 - LaMonte Edwards
(OLB) - Former RB turned DE turned OLB, I think Edwards will be a key contributor off the bench for the Gopher defense.
15 - Steven Montgomery
(DB) - potentially a safety, possibly a corner but Montgomery was one of the more highly touted recruits in 2011 and might find his way onto the field this year in a reserve role.
16 - Spencer Reeves
(OLB) - Reeves was not as productive in his junior year as he was as a sophomore, but he is still a solid depth guy who still has a chance to be a regular contributor.
17 - Kendal Gregor-McGhee
(DE) - Fourth man in the DE rotation, appeared in 11 games last year as as sophomore.

There you have 17 names of returners who in my estimation are the most likely to contribute next year. The top of the list are guys that we absolutely have to be able to count on to be playmakers. They don't have to be All-Big Ten caliber guys but they do have to be guys who make fewer mistakes and are going to be the leaders on this defense. The next couple groups are guys who will either be starters or guys who play a lot of snaps off the bench and the more they can improve and become reliable the better this defense will be. There are, of course, others who may jump into the mix for playing time, particularly redshirt freshmen who will be ready to play. Guys like Cedric Thompson, Quinn Bauducco, Austin Hahn, Matt Garin, Kenny Watkins or Harold Legania might surprise and get themselves on the field on a regular basis. But I cannot list 30 people, that is just too much.

17 names is not enough for a full two-deep depth chart, fortunately we have some players coming in who may help.

Incoming Help

1 - Jeremy Baltazar (DB) - I expect that Baltazar will be given every opportunity to start as free safety. Apparently he was told that he was being recruited to come here and play corner, but safety is the biggest weakness on the field and if he has the skills to fill that role then I'm assuming he'll be happy to be on the field.
2 - Martez Shabaz
(CB) - I really like Shabaz's speed and size for a corner. I don't know if he'll start but he may push Vereen to the nickel role and he'll get the starting nod. He will play a lot, you will see this young man in the secondary all year.
3 - JUCO DT?
(DT) - Reportedly the staff is working hard at securing a JUCO who could contribute immediately.
4 - Briean Broddy
(CB) - JUCO corner who comes in with sophomore eligibility. I think Broddy will play behind Stoudermire this year and then have the chance to start for the next two.

(thus ends the JUCO transfers, next are the true freshmen who may or may not contribute)

5 - Dinero Moss (CB) - incoming true freshman who will very likely redshirt but you never know.

all others will redshirt.

So now we have the players so let's take a look at a projected 2-deep for the 2012 Gopher Defense.

Projected Two-Deep

This would be my very early guess at next year's defensive two-deep. Obviously this is up for debate and much will likely change between now and August, but it gives us something to talk about.