Last season was the first since 2003 that Minnesota finished in the top 6 in the B1G in both total defense (6th at 373.2 yds per game) and scoring defense (4th at 22.2 points per game allowed). Believe it or not in 2014 they could be even better as the Gophers lose just four starters and return 11 players who started at least 2 games last season while boasting not only talent but experienced depth at virtually every position. Defensive Coordinator Tracey Claeys and his defensive coaches have rebuilt this defense into a strength and foundation of the program in just three short seasons, which shouldn't be a surprise considering he's done this at every place he's been with Jerry Kill. Gopher fans need to appreciate what Claeys has done and will continue to do as long as we have him, because now that the he's succeeding at a BCS-school, other schools will come calling to finally make him a head coach.
It's crazy to think Minnesota can lose 1st team All-B1G defenders and legitimate future pros like DT Ra'Shede Hageman and DB Brock Vereen, as well as solid contributors like LB's Aaron Hill and James Manuel and DT Roland Johnson, and potentially be even better a year later. While there's always questions about who will replace whom and whether they can replace the departed productivity, for the first time in the Kill Era (and really the first time in forever) there's not one position group here to be overly worried about. With the big names gone, it's going to provide an opportunity for the returnees to step up and break out, though at three different levels:
THE BROCK VEREEN "MAKING THE LEAP FROM GOOD TO GREAT" CATEGORY
Vereen was a good player heading into his senior season before putting together an all-conference season as he turned himself in a name to be known across the conference. Four returning starters have the best chance to do the same:
ERIC MURRAY, CB, JR
Murray came from off the grid a bit last year to snag a starting spot and never relinquished it, starting in every game in 2013, earning him All-B1G honorable mention from both the media and coaches. He was seventh in total tackles with 52 and led the team with both 10 pass breakups and passes defended. With a willingnes and ability to help in run support as well as blanket receivers in coverage, he just needs to snag a few throws like he did a starting spot (believe it or not he's still looking for his first career INT), and he could be one of the best corners in the conference.
THEIREN COCKRAN, DE, JR
In his first year as a starter Cockran led the team in sacks with 7.5, a number good enough for third in the entire conference. However, while his 10 TFL's were second on the team that number lagged well behind the elite B1G pass rushers. He also did not register a sack or TFL in four of the team's five losses, with a lone sack vs Michigan State. At 6'6 and 240+ pounds Cockran has all the tools to be an elite B1G pass rusher, and here's hoping he'll find more productivity and consistency as a junior in 2014.
DAMIEN WILSON, MLB, SR
A JUCO transfer last year, Wilson fought for the starting spot all spring and summer before eventually earning the job, and boy did he make that decision look good. Wilson was second in total tackles (78), tied for fourth in TFL's (5.5) and even registered a sack. A prototype Mike linebacker at 6'2 and 254, Wilson has all the tools for a monster senior season and All-B1G consideration. Could he crack 100 tackles?
CEDRIC THOMPSON, S, SR
Can you name Minnesota's leading tackler from a year ago? If I hadn't brought this up under Thompson's name, would you have guessed it was him? Liar, you would have said Vereen. Ok fine, I would have said Vereen or Wilson but it was Cedric who led all Gophers with 78 total tackles and 52 solo in 2013. His junior season was a bit up and down as he started in 11 of 13 games, but finished the season strong and looks to be a leader of the defense and probably captain in 2014. As safeties usually have the best opportunities to rack up counting stats of all types because of their versatility, Thompson is right there with the other three guys as most likely to jump from good to great in 2014.
THE DONNELL KIRKWOOD "BACK FROM INJURY AND (EVENTUALLY) BETTER THAN EVER" CATEGORY
Lest you've forgotten, Kirkland Kirkwood created some buzz as a freshman in 2010 before a leg injury ended his season. He wasn't the same guy in 2011, and just when some idiots wrote him off (ahem, that would be me), he led the team in rushing in 2012.
BRIEAN BODDY-CALHOUN, CB, JR
Ok fine, maybe naming this category after Kirkland wasn't the best example I could use, as injuries hampered last season for both of these guys, and yet we're expecting a bounce-back the very next year. For Boddy-Calhoun, by "hamper" I mean "ended" as a knee injury suffered in the second game took care of this 2013 seasson. It was really a shame as he came from off the grid and looked fantastic in thos first two starts, a genuine pleasant surprise in an area of real concern heading into the season (remember how worried we all were at this time last seaosn of how to replace Michael Carter and Troy "No wait now it's STOO-der-mire" Stoudermire?) as the coaches were even calling him the best corner on the team. By all accounts Boddy-Calhoun looked great in the spring and there's now expectations of him picking up in 2014 where he left off in 2013. I know it used to be tough to ask a guy less than 12 months removed from major surgery to be his old self again, but if Adrian Peterson can recover in like 6 minutes and be better than ever, hopefully Boddy-Calhoun will be back at (close to) full speed by the season opener. If he is, he could have a big year.
DERRICK WELLS, CB, SR
After starting 11 games at safety in 2012 as a true sophomore, Wells was moved to corner in 2013 and with his size and athleticism was expected to more than fill the shoes of the departed "Don't call me STOUD-a-mire" as the boundary corner. But thanks to lingering injuries, the breakout never came as he started just five games in 11 appearances and as of now has gone from being the top corner to likely to play nickel if he's ever healthy enough. He is the least likely name on this list to break out as with Murray and Boddy-Calhoun ahead of him at the moment at corner and some solid starters and depth at safety, his chances for playing time to make an impact may be limited. Still, based on what we saw from him in 2012 if he's 100% healthy he absolutely has all-conference potential, we'll just see if he can create the opportunity.
THE DAVID COBB "PART TIME OR NO TIME TO PRIME TIME" CATEGORY
Why are most of my categories named after offensive players when we're talking defense? I had a reason but I'm so sleep deprived thanks to the new kiddo (he's doing great, by the way. JDMill and his lovely wife already got him some cool Gopher gear, including a home-made Gopher "onesy". I think he cries a lot now, but just imagine when he's old enough to follow Gopher football...) my only response is "I think I need more coffee". A Cobb or Maxx NSFW Williams-type breakout from a reserve or off-the-two-deep type player seizing a starting job and starring in it is most people's definition of a breakout performance. However, with so many starters and reserves back there's few opportunities for somebody truly off the grid to have a breakout performance. The most likely spot will be at defensive tackle, and while there's some solid players there, I just don't see anybody having a breakout-type impact at that position. But with two starting spots up for grabs at linebacker? Well that's a different story...
DE'VONDRE CAMPBELL, OLB, JR
The JUCO transfer and signing day steal showed glimpses of his immense potential last season, bumping Manuel out of the starting lineup vs San Jose State and Iowa, only to lose it again for the rest of the year, save one other start vs Indiana. Perhaps having Campbell there pushed Manuel to change from a maddeningly inconsistent player to one of Minnesota's more productive starters in his final season, and as much as I loved (and continue to love) Campbell's potential and Manuel drove me nuts, Manuel deserved the playing time he got a season ago. Campbell is one of the most physically gifted players on the roster, and at 6'5 and almost 230 pounds also has the size to go with it. There shouldn't be anything he can't do on a football field at this level, no back or quarterback he can't track down, no slot receiver or tight end he can't cover- it's quite simply up to him how good he wants to be and when he wants it to happen. Here's hoping it's 2014.
JACK LYNN, OLB, SO
Lynn was right there until the opener vs Vegas for the starting MLB spot, but once Wilson won the job, he never gave it back. With vet Aaron Hill at one outside spot and Manuel and Campbell battling at the other, there was just nowhere else for Lynn to play last season, as he made no starts and just three total appearances. Still just a sophomore he may yet be the future at MLB, but with Wilson back in the middle and Lynn having another great camp, it looks like he won't be left on the sidelines again in 2014. Or, at least, not initially. Claeys and the coaches continue to say great things about Lynn and his work ethic and how well he played in the spring, so much so they've moved him to the vacant OLB spot opposite Campbell. Lynn put on weight to play the middle though listed at 234 pounds, he's certainly not oversized for the position, and we'll see how he adjusts in the month of August practices leading up to the season. From the sounds of it he'll likely get a month to prove the job is his, as JUCO transfer Cody Pook is expected back from a knee injury he suffered in spring camp just a few weeks ago. Before the injury, it was Pook and his Clay Matthews-esque hair starting on the outside, not Lynn, but getting a big head start on the spot could be all he needs, especially considering it seems crazy Pook will be back healthy enough to start in just six months. Though if he's on the AP recovery schedule, then I guess anything's possible.