As usual, high levels of procrastination and just plain shitty planning have forced me to do one big defense preview rather than separate previews by position like I did with quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and offensive line.
Last season, the Gophers D was 45th in points against, allowing 24.7 points per game. They were 33rd in yard allowed per game (358.6). They were 12th in passing yards allowed per game (186),but were 72nd in rushing yards allowed per game (172). On one hand you might say teams don't need to pass much when they're leading and are able to run the ball so well. However, I tend to think that the offense didn't do them any favors, which left the defense on the field more than you'd want. This isn't exactly a big time passing conference either.
The defense loses both starting cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudemire. They also lose starting linebackers Keanon Cooper, Mike Rallis and more importantly, Mike Rallis's hair. Finally, they lost starting defensive end DL Wilhite. These losses are significant given that Stoudemire and Rallis were the top two tacklers, Carter was the team leader in interceptions and Wilhite led the team in sacks.
In reaction to losing Stoud and Carter, the secondary shuffled the deck a little. The team's best returning tackler, Junior Derrick Wells, has been moved from safety to cornerback. Unfortunately, Wells has shoulder and hamstring issues and is questionable for the UNLV game. He's the best player of this group and is a key to make sure there isn't a drop-off from losing the two starting corners. Sophomore Eric Murray is the other starting corner. Both of these guys are 6 feet tall and can hit; they should be effective in helping against the run. The starting safeties are Sr. Brock Vereen and Junior Cedric Thompson. Cedric is straight outta Compton, which is pretty awesome. Jr. Briean Boddy-Calhoun, So. Damarius Travis, Sr. Martez Shabazz and So. Antonio Johnson should provide depth in the secondary. Freshman Jalen Myrick has also impressed, but you have to wonder if he isn't going to redshirt. Boddy-Calhoun would likely get the start if Wells can't go -- he's a quick, aggressive corner that has impressed coaches in practice. I think him of him as more as a cover guy than a tackler. In a nickel formation, Boddy-Calhoun would move to the outside and Wells would bring his hard-hitting presence to the nickelback.
This group has a lot to prove, but it *feels* like they have a great deal of talent. I could just be drinking the Golden Kool Aid but I like the veteran presence of Wells and Vereen along with some athletes like Eric Murray and Thompson. Wells needs to get healthy, and if that involves him missing the first game against UNLV, so be it. A lingering shoulder issue could really affect his season.
Similar to the wide receivers on the offensive side; the linebackers are the area I have the most concern for on the defense. It's not that Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis were all-world players, it's just that there is a lot of unknown and we're potentially looking at two players starting that weren't with the program at all last season. Returning is RS Sr. Aaron Hill (6'2", 231) will definitely be a leader on the defense. Last year he tied with Wells for 3rd on the team with 74 tackles; he also had three forced fumbles and two interceptions. Hill's story is pretty cool because he started as a walk-on and is now one of the more important dudes on the team.
It looks like JuCo Jr. transfer Damien Wilson will start at the middle linebacker spot, but nothing is confirmed and redshirt freshman Jack Lynn may also see the field even if he's not named the starter. Wilson is bigger at 6'2, 254 -- Lynn is a more lanky 6'3", 234. Claeys is playing this one close to the vest, "Like I’ve always said, if [Wilson] doesn’t practice well the next few
days and Jack ends up starting, that’s the way the ball bounces,” Claeys
said. “We don’t decide until the morning of the game." (source)
At the other outside linebacker spot there's another battle between Sr. James Manuel and JuCo transfer RS So. De'Vondre Campbell. Manuel played in all 13 games last season and has actually appeared in every game in his three years at Minnesota. Despite being fast, he is a converted safety after all, I've never got the feeling that he's totally comfortable at OLB and that at times he gets a little lost out there and maybe lacks immediate play recognition and quick reaction. Manuel recorded 50 total tackles last year. While Manuel will likely start on Thursday due to his veteran status, it's De'Vondre Campbell that has the coaches abuzz. (abuzz?) Like the MLB situation, Claeys has indicated that Campbell will get time even if he's not starting. He's 6'5" and 225lbs and with his dreads has a bit of a MarQueis Gray look to him out there. He's super long and rangy and coaches have been impressed with his ability to correct mistakes and see in infrared like the Predator.
Other linebackers that will likely see time include RSSo Jephte Matilus and RSFr Nick Rallis. Freshmen Ray Dixon, De'Niro Laster and Chris Wipson have been mentioned by coaches as potentially earning playing time as well.
The Defensive Line
The D-line starts but doesn't end with redshirt senior Ra'Shede Hageman. If you follow this blog you already knew I was in love with him based on this blog post. After he wrecks fools this year, you'll be watching him on Sundays. There's more to like about this year's line beyond Optimus Prime though.
The other starter on the interior is RS Jr. Cameron Botticelli (6'5", 290). Cameron started alongside Shede most/all of last season and recorded 21 tackles and a half of a sack. He's a year older and likely better/stronger/faster and he continues to hold off the players behind him; so that's probably a good thing. The depth at defensive tackle includes Sr. Roland Johnson (6'1", 286), So. Scott Ekpe (6'4", 281) and RS Fr. Yoshoub Timms (6'2", 276). Roland played in 10 games last year and had 21 tackles and 2 sacks before blowing an ACL. He's healthy now and will rotate in with Botticelli quite a bit I would imagine. Ekpe is likely Hageman's backup, so we hope he doesn't play much.
As for the ends, the starters are RS So. Theiran Cockran (6'6", 238) and Jr. Michael Amaefula (6'2", 244). Amaefula had 19 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season as a starter. Cockran is new to starting, but had a couple of sacks in the August scrimmage. The backups are So. Alex Keith, RS Jr. Ben Perry and freshman Hendrick (Hank) Ekpe. Perry has had his chances in the starting lineup and is a solid rotation option. Ekpe (6'5",251) has impressed so much that there is no longer any doubt that he plays right away. Another freshman, Owen Salzwedel (6'6", 240) has the potential to get playing time, but they might want to hold off and preserve his redshirt.
Year 3 of the Jerry Kill regime seems to continue to trend upwards as we climb out of the Brewster cesspool. There seems to be so much more depth at all positions and stars and leaders are emerging on the team. The B1G schedule did not get any easier this year though; and in order to really show that this team is making another big step forward, Kill will have to get a big win or *gasp* two over the legitimate Big Ten power programs. I'm conditioned to say this won't happen because I've had my heart torn from my chest cavity too many times from this team. However, there is a buzz not just locally, but nationally, about the strides the team is making. "Those who don't believe in magic will never find it." -Ronald Reagan