2010 Scoring defense: 33 PPG (Ninth in the conference), total defense: 392.2 YPG (eighth), rushing defense: 5.27 YPC (11th), passing efficiency allowed: 154.16 (10th)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 7.5
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Fifth (2009)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 11th (2007)
Returning Starters: DE D.L. Wilhite, DE Matt Garin, DL Anthony Jacobs, DT Brandon Kirksey, LB Gary Tinsley, LB Mike Rallis, LB Keanon Cooper, LB Ryan Grant, CB Michael Carter, CB Brock Vereen, CB Troy Stoudermire, S Kim Royston, S Christyn Lewis
Open Positions: None
Last year's defense was, in a word, awful.
To some degree, that was hardly surprising, as the Gophers only returned two starters from the previous year's defense, and one of those starters—safety Kim Royston—was lost to a broken leg before the season even began.
That being as it were, Minnesota has a ton of returning experience this year. If Kill so chooses, he has a returning starter at each position.
Kill's defensive coordinator is Tracy Claeys. Claeys has been with Kill since 1995 and has been the defensive coordinator at every stop Kill has made since 1999 at Emporia State.
In all three of their seasons at Northern Illinois, Kill and Claeys' defense was a top-three MAC scoring defense. They were the top scoring defense in both 2010 and 2008. By comparison, in the three years before Kill took over, the Huskies' scoring defense was ranked ninth, fourth and second.
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."
In short, Minnesota's opponents can expect to see a lot of different defensive looks and a lot of different faces.
Claeys will run a traditional 4-3 and prefers to create pressure with a very aggressive front four, as opposed to a lot of blitzing.
He wants his linemen upfield, and he wants a disciplined back seven.
The Gophers return all but one of the linemen that played notable snaps in 2010, but the question is, is that a good thing?
To begin, there is the issue that they were the worst rushing defense in the conference. Letting up over five yards per carry speaks to a porous defensive line.
About the only positive thing that can be taken from last year's pass rush was that 60 percent (five) of its sacks came in the last three games of the season. In effect, it could be argued that the line improved. Of course, the player that got two of those five sacks—Jewhan Edwards—has left school.
The returning linemen in question are defensive ends D.L. Wilhite (junior) and Matt Garin (sophomore), senior defensive tackle Brandon Kirksey and senior defensive lineman Anthony Jacobs, who can play both inside and out but at 295 pounds, is more suited to playing tackle.
As can be inferred, this group did not play well last year, though Kirksey was fairly solid at plugging holes and stopping the run.
Another player that will be in the mix is sophomore Kendall Gregory-McGhee. He is 6'5", 253 pounds, and he recorded one of the Gophers' eight sacks in limited play last season. He is currently listed as a starting defensive end over Garin.
There are a number of freshmen behind these core five players, but none that has particularly distinguished himself.
In the end, it is reasonable to expect some improvement from this bunch. On the other hand, unless one or two of the linemen really step up and become a disruptive force, there is no reason to expect this to be a particularly formidable line.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 11
The linebackers are not only Minnesota's strongest position group; they are also the deepest position group, and they have the strongest upside.
Firstly, every 2010 starter returns. This includes senior Gary Tinsley and juniors Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis.
Tinsley is the best of the bunch and is good enough to contend for all-conference honors (and arguably would have last season if he didn't play for Minnesota).
Cooper is also a decent, balanced linebacker that is solid against the run. Rallis had some issues last season, but experience should help him a good deal.
That said, due to the supersaturation of quality linebackers, it is entirely possible that one of the returning three could be on the outside looking in.
The three most likely to push for playing time are junior Ryan Grant, who started four games in 2010; junior Spencer Reeves, who has turned some heads; and Florida Gator transfer Brandon Beal.
Beal was a highly recruited 2009 prospect out of Pennsylvania that had offers from pretty much everybody. He missed his first season of action with an ACL tear. He then transferred and sat out 2010. Now, he is ready to play, and he is currently listed as the starting MLB. Odds are, he will remain there.
Tinsley was last year's starting MLB, but it seems unlikely that Kill will put his best (or second-best if Beal turns out) player on the bench. In effect, one has to assume everything will be done to get Tinsley on the field.
That might be moving Tinsley to another linebacker spot, it might be moving him to the defensive line or it might be a scheme change.
This leaves one to question whether it is in the Gophers' best interest to employ 3-4 looks into their repertoire. As previously mentioned, Claeys is a strict 4-3 man, but there is no getting around two facts.
There are serious questions that surround the defensive line, and if Minnesota were to put their 11 best men on the field, odds are at least four of those men would be linebackers.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: Six (with a bullet)
It is unfair to blame last year's atrocious pass defense entirely on the secondary. To reiterate, the pass rush was almost non-existent. Even Charles Woodson can only maintain coverage for so long.
On the other hand, the secondary wasn't great.
Due to injuries (and indecision), Minnesota started 10 different players in the secondary in 2010. A number of those players are returning in 2011.
Most notable among the cornerbacks are: senior converted receiver Troy Stoudermire; juniors Michael Carter and Kyle Henderson; senior Johnny Johnson, and sophomore Brock Vereen.
After spring ball, Stoudermire and Vareen were at the top of the depth chart. However, given Kill and Claeys' penchant for substituting, expect to see all of them play.
As for the safeties, the three most notable are: sophomore James Manuel and seniors Christyn Lewis and Kim Royston.
Royston was the aforementioned returning starter who broke his leg before the 2010 season. Due to this, the NCAA has granted him a sixth year of eligibility. This is particularly good news for the Minnesota secondary, as Royston is a big hitter who could help add an element of toughness to a D that was sorely lacking that element last season.
Overall, there is potential here, as well as a fair amount of depth. If Royston can return to form, and the other backs can play solid, disciplined football, this group could be decent.
On the other hand, there is that pass rush...
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 11
Special Teams Specialists
Minnesota will be breaking in a new place kicker. The punter and kick returner will return, and there is experience in the punt returning ranks.
Firstly, the punter. Dan Orseske had the worst net average in the conference last season by over three yards per kick. On the other hand, he was a redshirt freshman. On yet another hand, he was a redshirt freshman that had a bit of experience, as he had nine punts in 2009, before a case of mononucleosis ended his rookie season.
Now, he's got a full year of experience, and he will be expected to put up better numbers.
In 2010, the second-worst field goal kicking team in the conference was Minnesota. The likely starter this year is sophomore Chris Hawthorne,
Hawthorne is a soccer player and a North Carolina State transfer that has only been playing football for two years. He boomed a 50-yarder in the spring practice, so he's got the leg. The question is, can this soccer player make kicks in a game situation?
The kick return man will be Troy Stoudermire. Last season, he had the second most returns in the conference, as well as the third best average. Though he didn't return any for a touchdown, he is a dangerous player; so much so that Iowa pooched every kickoff against Minny last year, so that Stoudermire wouldn't have a chance to burn them.
Finally, the Gophers lost their key punt returner with the transfer of receiver Bryant Allen. Nevertheless, receiver Brandon Green and Stoudermire do have experience in that department. Moreover, speedster and true freshman WR Marcus Jones enrolled early and might be an option.
In closing, Stoudermire is a weapon in the kickoff return department. Everything else is something of a question mark.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: Nine
Coming Tomorrow: Schedule and Final Breakdown