Walk with me down memory lane, if you would, to about this time last season. The Gophers were coming off a 2011 season where the defense got absolutely torched. They were 10th or worst in the B1G in just about every defensive catergory that mattered. Well, except they were only 7th in passing yards allowed, yet allowed opposing QB's to complete a staggering 67.7% of their passes. They also couldn't force a turnover to save their lives, forcing just nine total, including only four picks (As you've no doubt tried to forget, the leader in interceptions that year was junior corner Troy Stoudermire with 2- and he missed more than half the season). One of the few bright spots of that group, 17th yr senior S Kim Royston led the team in tackles with a whopping 123 (which was 2nd in the B1G), including 71 solo, but as a senior wouldn't be back. Stoudermire was coming off of injury, and they had little to no depth or experience coming back around him.
We expected the worst, but by the end of the 2012 season the defensive backs ended up being the strength of the defense, and perhaps the entire team. Stoudermire had a very solid senior season leading the team in tackles, and sophomores Derrick Wells and Cedric Thompson, and junior Brock Vereen really stepped up to replace Royston at FS and the giant, cavernous, gaping, festering (you get the idea) hole at SS that nobody had filled in 2011. And of course, senior Michael Carter had a renaissance by finally morphing into the all-B1G caliber corner we thought we were getting since his freshman season in 2008. Three JUCO transfers in Martez Shabazz, Briean Boddy, and Jeremy Baltazar also made some solid contributions when called upon.
The team more than tripled their interceptions with 15, as the DB's took 13 of them (Carter led with 4), ended up with the fourth ranked pass defense in the B1G, ranked 5th in the B1G in total defense and had a run defense...as I said, the pass defense was MUCH improved! It really can't be overstated not only how much the defensive backs improved from 2011 to 2012, but how amazing that transformation was to watch.
For the 2013 defensive backs the bar has definitely been raised. It's not that it can't be reached, it's just that it's a lot higher than it was going into last year when it was pretty much lying on the floor. Both Stoudermire and Carter are gone, leaving a pretty big vacancy at both starting spots. Stoudermire led the team in tackles with 82 as the boundary corner, while Carter was the proverbial "ball hawk" tied for the B1G lead with 4 picks and was second with 15 pass breakups. Wells has been moved down to the boundary corner from safety, and the junior has a real chance for all-conference honors as he's very physical with excellent tackling ability (he was second on the team in solo tackles last year with 46 and third in total tackles with 74) and is also incredibly athletic when in coverage (he had two picks and 10 pass breakups in 2012). He could definitely be an upgrade over Stoudermire, and Troy was pretty good.
The other corner spot is more of a question mark, though it's not for lack of good candidates. Sophomore Eric Murray, who appeared in 12 games last year but had only 5 tackles almost all of which was on special teams, had a monster spring, and according to the coaches has the inside track on the starting gig. Murray's main competition, as well as the leaders for the nickel spot, are Boddy,
soph Demarius Travis senior Martez Shabazz, and true freshman Jalen Myrick. Myrick has only been on campus a few weeks but the Georgia native has obviously impressed the coaches, and got his chance this week with the 1's and 2's to prove he belongs. I wouldn't be surprised at all if, like Murray, they didn't shirt him and he was part of the two deep rotation. Another corner to keep an eye on is converted receiver Marcus Jones, as the junior will be playing corner for the first time since high school. He was recruited by other schools as a DB, but in need of more weapons on offense Jones was a slot receiver his first two seasons in Maroon and Gold. He had a promising start as a true freshman before a knee injury ended his year, and he just didn't look to be the same guy last year. He's behind the learning curve right now and he's not very big at only 5'8 and a buck-66, but he's athletic enough that he could crack the rotation before the season is done.
The Gophers look set at safety with Vereen and Thompson, and it's a pretty nice luxury to be able to move Wells out of that spot and have capable and experienced replacements ready to go. Vereen started seven games in 2012, including the last six, and put up some pretty impressive numbers: 6th on the team with 64 tackles while adding 1.5 TFL, a half sack, two picks, and nine pass breakups. If Vereen can pickup where he left off in the bowl game, he should be one of Minnesota's best defenders this season. Thompson was the odd man out in the safety rotation last year once Wells finally got healthy by the Illinois game, but he still started eight of the first nine games and appeared in all 13 so he's more than ready to be the full-time starter at FS. He had 43 tackles from a year ago with two picks and three breakups, and could be a real playmaker this season.
Soph Antonio Johnson and
senior Martez Shabazz sophomore Demarius Travis are the next two up as of right now, but that could change between now and the opener. Johnson, at 6'0 and almost 210 pounds, played in 12 games last season and even started the bowl game against Texas Tech where he made six tackles and broke up a pass. Travis, who is 6'2 and also almost 210 pounds, appeared in all 13 games last season. Junior Grayson Levine of Eden Prairie continues to fight for second team reps, and keep an eye on true freshman Daletavious McGhee, a DB prospect from Georgia who like Myrick at corner, is going to be given the chance with the 1's and 2's to see if he's ready to play right now.
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