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Minnesota Gopher Football 2012 Positional Previews: Defensive Backs- Upgrade or Downgrade?

The Minnesota Golden Gopher football team was 3-9 in 2011, and this probably won't shock you, but the defense wasn't very good. That's not a knock on defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who had the momentous task of rebuilding a defense that was quite simply "Cosgroved". If you're not a fan of the Gophers or Nebraska Cornhuskers, it means taking a solid defense, having it coached by Kevin Cosgrove, and by the time he's fired it's left in a heaping pile of charred smoking ruin. Can go for the entire defense, or an individual defender. Claeys has built a monster defense wherever he's been, and it'll happen here too, but to do it, we're going to need some improvements on that defense he pulled from the ashes last season. And nowhere is there more improvement to do than in the secondary.

Now as you probably know, the success or failure of a defense isn't just about the secondary, or the line, or the linebackers- it's about all facets working together (or with a Cosgroved defense, not working at all). The line got little push all year and didn't put much pressure on quarterbacks, which left the linebackers scrambling, and the secondary hung out to dry. Compared to the rest of the Big Ten, the Gophers were 11th in scoring and run defense, and 10th in total defense (allowing a whopping 403 yards per game). They were actually only (yeah only) the ninth worst pass defense by allowing 216 per game, but 11th in pass efficiency defense because quarterbacks completed an unholy 67.7% of their passes when they played Minnesota. That is not a typo. On average all 12 quarterbacks the Gophers faced, from Kirk Cousins and Dan Persa to the guys who played QB for New Mexico State and 2011 National Champions North Dakota State (that one's for Josho), completed 67.7 freaking percent of their passes. If their tailbacks hadn't also been averaging five yards per carry, they might have thrown for well more than 216 yards per game against the Gophers.

The lone bright spot in the secondary was sixth year safety Kim Royston, who finished second in the conference in tackles with 10.2 per game and led the Big Ten with 71 solo tackles. As the lone experienced defensive back who was actually producing and who looked even remotely like he knew what he was doing, he must have felt like Chef Gordon Ramsey in one of those Hell's Kitchen episodes where the kitchen is in chaos and half the entrees are on fire. Part of the problem, well besides little-to-no Big Ten talent other than Royston, was top senior corner Troy Stoudermire being lost for the year to a broken forearm barely three games into the season. He left as the team's leader in interceptions with two...and finished that way. And if that isn't embarrassing enough, Stoudermire's two picks were good for HALF of Minnesota's season total. Again, not a typo. Minnesota's D picked off a grand total of two passes after Stoudermire got hurt for a grand total of four on the season, a woeful total by any measure.

So as I said earlier, yeah, there's room for improvement here. After the jump we'll take a look at what the 2012 secondary should look like, and take a guess at whether they'll be an upgrade over 2011...

As great as it would be for Royston to get a seventh year of eligibility, it wasn't going to happen, so gone is the leader in tackles and, well, leadership. Thankfully, Stoudermire gets another crack at his senior season, as the NCAA granted him a medical hardship waiver. Tough to gauge what Troy's ceiling as a player is this season (a small part of me thinks he has an outside shot to be all-conference), but what we know for sure is his floor is a lot higher than everyone else coming back. If nothing else, we know the former #11 and now #2 will be a solid and steady presence who loves to hit and showed pretty good instincts in coverage. He's the easy choice as the team's best defensive back, and possibly best overall defender, to begin 2012.

After him, well, this is where it gets interesting. The Gophers certainly look to have more talent and speed than last year, but whether that translates to anything is what we'll find out soon enough. Nowhere is that more true than of the man lining up opposite Stoudermire in senior corner Michael Carter. The word enigma is thrown around a LOT in the blogosphere, one of those words that's overused and lost its meaning somewhat. And yet, I can't think of anything better to describe Carter and his career thus far at Minnesota. He came highly touted as a four star prospect, signed away from West Virginia on signing day. He didn't take long to make an impact, starting the last half of the 2009 season as a true freshman (filling in for Traye Simmons, who in the span of less than a calendar year somehow went from second team all-conference as a junior to being replaced by a true freshman halfway through his senior year. Yep, he got Cosgroved) and really held his own.

Then he got Cosgroved, going backwards just as Simmons did before him, starting four games early in the season then falling way down the depth chart by the end of his sophomore year in 2010. 2011 brought a new coaching staff and a fresh start, yet the only noticeable thing Carter did was be the first (if I remember right) Gopher to don one of Coach Kill's infamous "Minnesota Lopher" shirts in spring ball, given to a Gopher player who wasn't putting in the necessary effort. He started the season in the coach's dog house, and finished it there, as a defense seemingly ready to pull people out of the stands to play corner after Stoudermire's injury wouldn't put him on the field. Carter played in just four games in 2011 recording just nine tackles and, like everybody else, had no picks.

So imagine my surprise when there in the starting lineup on the first day of fall practice is Michael Carter. Sporting a new #23 (he wore 6 his first three seasons here), he looked like a new man with a new attitude. I have no idea what changed for him, what made the light bulb go on that despite his immense talent he needed more than that if he wanted to play again for this team, but it happened. Sure, Minnesota is thin at corner this season and Carter IS a senior, but they were woefully thin last year too and he barely played. So the turnaround must be real- or at least let's hope it is. We've seen Carter's potential floor, and it's at the end of the bench. His ceiling is much higher, perhaps as high as Stoudermire's if he really puts it all together. If he (finally) plays up to his potential, Carter gives the Gophers two very solid starting corners, and that would do wonders not only for the secondary, but for the defense as a whole. Better late than never, am I right?

The second string corners, at least through the first week of practice, are a pair of JUCO transfers in Jeremy Baltazar and Martez Shabaz. Shabaz is 5'11 and listed at 168 pounds, although to see him at practice with everyone else he looks about half that weight. Still he's fast and moves very well, and while he probably won't be much of a factor against the run, he looks to potentially be an asset in coverage. My guess is Baltazar gets first crack at nickel corner, as at 6'0 and 196 he should be able to help in coverage and moving up against the run.

There'll be two new starting safeties in 2012, as Royston and a few others who filled in beside him, won't be around to help. Christyn Lewis and Shady Solomon are both out of eligibility (remember how excited we were for Solomon's potential at safety? That lasted all of two games. If that), and junior James Manuel was moved to outside linebacker this spring, where he's apparently pushing Keanon Cooper for a starting gig. Did not see that one coming. Both starters through the first week of camp are true sophomores in Derrick Wells and Cedric Thompson. Neither started last year but both played as true freshmen, and they've both done enough to impress the coaches thus far.

Their starting jobs are by no means set in stone. Pushing them for playing time is junior Brock Vereen, who started all 12 games at corner last season but the coaches decided his size, hitting ability, and ahem, coverage liability "ability" were better suited for safety. Grayson Levine is yet another sophomore pushing for playing time, but unlike Wells and Thompson it was a surprise to see Levine play at all as a true freshman. The Eden Prairie grad was not heavily recruited outside of the upper Midwest, and you wonder if the coaches thought the kid would make the team let alone earn playing time in his year out of high school, yet he saw action in five games in 2011, and should see plenty more in 2012. It should also be noted that Levine is the only player in the secondary on the two deep roster who doesn't hail from either Florida, California, or Texas. Thought that was worth mentioning.

While things can and may change, those look like your main contributors for what we really, really, really hope is an improve secondary in 2012. They'll certainly miss Royston's leadership, but getting Stoudermire back for one last season is as good a straight-up trade as you can hope for. We'll see if the guys around him can have better luck holding up their end of things than the guys around Royston did a year ago and maybe, just maybe, this will start to look like a real quality Big Ten secondary.