Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Minnesota Golden Gophers, Part 3, Defense
I began by taking a broad overview of the Minnesota program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Gophers will do this season.
Last week, I looked at the 2012 Minnesota offense and what it projects to look like.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 Minnesota defense.
2011 scoring defense: 31.7 PPG (11th in the conference)
Total defense: 403.1 YPG (10th)
Rushing defense: 4.87 YPC (11th)
Passing efficiency allowed: 148.81 (11th)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 8.4
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: fifth (2009)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 11th (2011 and 2007)
Returning starters: DE Ben Perry, DE D.L. Wilhite, DE Michael Amaefula, LB Mike Rallis, LB Keanon Cooper, DB Brock Vereen, CB Troy Stoudermire
Open positions: DT, LB, S
Defensive formation: 4-3
Defensive philosophy: moderate
Last year was Jerry Kill's and long-time defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys' worst defense in a while.
All three of Kill's defenses at Northern Illinois ranked among the top three MAC defenses. It was tops in the MAC in 2008 and 2010.
Between 2003 and 2007, Kill's Southern Illinois defenses let up a cumulative average of just under 18 points per game.
The last time one of Kill's defenses let up more than 30 PPG was 2002 with Southern Illinois.
Kill and Claeys are known for "no-name" defenses. They like to rotate a lot of players and try not to rely on any individual "stars."
Minnesota's opponents expect to see a lot of different defensive looks and a lot of different faces.
Claeys runs a traditional 4-3 and prefers to create pressure with an aggressive front four, as opposed to a lot of blitzing.
He wants his linemen upfield, and he wants a disciplined back seven.
In 2011, Minnesota allowed 4.87 yards per carry, which was second-worst in the Big Ten. It also had the third-fewest sacks.
The Gophers will have to rebuild up the middle, which, considering how soft the middle was last year, might be a project.
Right now, the only defensive tackle with any experience is junior Ra'Shede Hageman, and most of his experience has come from the strong-side end position. Nonetheless, at just over 300 pounds, a move to the inside has always been expected.
That said, he could miss some playing time given a recent disorderly conduct charge (via CBS Sports).
JUCO-transfer Roland Johnson will have the best shot at the other starting spot.
Otherwise, junior Eric Jacques is the only other Gophers defensive tackle who has played notable snaps.
Things look better at the end, where Minnesota returns its three key starters.
D.L. Wilhite is the veteran of the group. He is a senior, a two-year starter, a top-notch student-athlete and, by all accounts, an upstanding human being. However, with only four sacks in over 16 starts as the weak-side defensive end, his impact on the football field has been minimal.
In 2011, he led the Gophers with three sacks, which brings me to the two sophomores: Perry and Amaefula. Together they combined for 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss. Needless to say, that is hardly the productivity one would like to see from starting defensive ends in a scheme that emphasizes penetration on the part of the front four.
On the other hand, Perry was a redshirt freshman, while Amaefula was in his first year on campus. Expect both to improve considerably in their second year on the field.
Other players who could make an impact at end include junior Matt Garin, who started six games in 2010. Also, the aforementioned Eric Jacques and walk-on sophomore Cameron Botticelli could push for playing time inside or out.
Finally, true freshman Scott Epke has turned some heads in his first semester on campus, but it is always a bad sign when a true freshman gets significant minutes on the line.
In closing, there are some positive aspects of the Minnesota front four and the pass rush should improve, but it is difficult to get excited about this group.
The Gophers return a decent amount of experience, but will have to replace recently deceased Gary Tinsley, who had been their best defensive player for the last two seasons.
Senior Keanon Cooper spent 2010 and 2011 on the weak side, but he might move to the middle if Florida-transfer Brendan Beal can't adjust or get healthy. As for Beal, he is a former blue-chip prospect, but he hasn't played much football in four years, having missed last season with a knee injury.
Mike Rallis might be the most dependable linebacker left on the team. The senior is a two-year starter who has spent most of his career on the strong side.
Seniors Ryan Grant and Spencer Reeves have seen spot action throughout their careers and will push for playing time. Junior Aaron Hill grabbed two starts on the weak side last season, while converted running back Lamonte Edwards grabbed one.
According to Jerry Kill (via Gopher Sports), the Gophers have "got a chance to run a little bit better (at linebacker). We certainly have a little bit of depth in that area. I feel pretty good. There is certainly some potential."
However much potential the linebackers have, they will probably be fighting off blockers all year given the issues projected on the line.
In the end, this bunch might be better than they look, but they are not good enough to prop up the entire defense.
With the loss of both of his starting safeties, not to mention a seeming lack of confidence in his returning cornerbacks (sixth-year senior Troy Stoudermire was only recently granted a medical redshirt), Jerry Kill dived heavily into the JUCO pool.
He brought in three JUCO defensive backs: Briean Boddy, Martez Shabazz and Jeremy Baltazar.
Baltazar comes from Blinn College in California and will push for playing time at cornerback or safety. Boddy, from Coffeyville (KS) Community College, and Shabazz, from Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College, are strictly cornerbacks.
Shabazz is currently listed at 5'11", 165 pounds and is impossible to conceive of as an every-down player unless he puts on some weight.
Michael Carter is a senior who had starting experience in 2009 and 2010, while sophomore Cedric Thompson got a good deal of playing time last season.
The returning starters are the previously mentioned Stoudermire and junior Brock Vereen, the latter of whom switched from cornerback to safety this spring.
The Star Tribune paraphrased Kill as saying he "is wary of junior-college players."
While I'm sure he didn't grab any player he could find just to patch holes, there is no getting around calling the JUCO explosion a quick fix.
In effect, I don't expect last season's 107th-ranked pass defense to get much better in 2012.
Last season, Minnesota had the No. 93-ranked scoring defense in the country, and that was with eight returning starters.
The only thing that saved the Gophers from being the worst defense in the conference was a horrendous Indiana defense.
Going into 2012, the positives on this defense include one more year removed from Tim Brewster, a bevy of underclassmen who earned playing time last year and a good core of senior leaders.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to see this bunch performing much better given the loss of Tinsley and safety Kim Royston, a revamped interior defensive line, a new secondary and an infusion of JUCOs.
In the end, any improvements the Gopher defense makes will be minimal.
Coming next Tuesday, an overview and breakdown of Minnesota's specialists, schedule, recruiting class and a prediction as to where I think the Gophers will finish the 2012 season.
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