2011 Minnesota Preview – Defense
Minnesota S Kim Royston
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Minnesota Golden Gopher Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know:
Considering the pass rush was the worst in the nation – generating a mere nine sacks – and there was major turnover in the linebacking corps, the defense wasn't all that bad. The potential is there for a big boost all across the board with eight starters returning, and that doesn't include safety Kim Royston, who's back after missing all of last year with a broken leg. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to be aggressive, aggressive, aggressive, but that means the veteran defensive front has to find a way to hit a quarterback on a regular basis. The linebacking corps that was a concern throughout last year should be a strength with Florida transfer Brendan Beal adding more talent to a veteran mix. The secondary has a nice mix of veterans and rising athletes, and it has the potential to be solid if it gets a little help from the defensive front.
Star of the defense: Senior S Kim Royston
Tackles: Gary Tinsley, 90
Sacks: Anthony Jacobs, 2
Interceptions: Mike Rallis, 3
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior DE D.L. Wilhite
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Brendan Beal
Best pro prospect: Senior CB Troy Stoudermire (partly as a returner)
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Royston, 2) Stoudermire, 3) Beal
Strength of the defense: Experience, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Pass Rush, Run Defense
State of the Unit: Dead last. The Gophers finished dead last in the nation in sacks making just nine on the year, and while there were some plays made in the backfield, there weren't nearly enough hits on the quarterback. Making matters worse, the run defense was the worst in the Big Ten allowing 191 yards per game. There was size and there were great prospects waiting in the wings, but the production wasn't there. That combination might work this year with three starters returning and a few very young, very promising players waiting to show what they can do.
The key to the production up front will be the play of D.J. Wilhite, a 6-3 237-pound athlete with the skills to be a pass rusher, but he hasn't quite gotten the job done yet. He earned All-Freshman honors and showed great promise, but he only made 14 tackles with a sack with 2.5 tackles for loss despite starting eight times and playing in every game. He's a speed rusher who needs to play like it, while 6-4, 252-pound sophomore Matt Garin is a promising end who started the final three games last year and finished with 13 tackles with a tackle for loss. A good athlete, he could find an early role as a pass rushing specialist.
Working on the other side will be sophomore Kendall Gregory-McGhee after getting a start against Purdue and seeing time in every game making four tackles with a sack. At 6-5 and 253 pounds he has excellent size and he gets off the ball in a hurry, but the pressure will be on right away to make something happen. 6-5, 248-pound redshirt freshman Ben Perry was a high school track star who'll get every chance to show what he can do.
Returning to a starting spot up front is 6-2, 299-pound senior Brandon Kirksey after making 28 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. He missed a little time dinged up, but he started 11 games and was as much of a leader as anyone up front. With great character, good leadership, and the time logged in, he has the ability to become an anchor, but he has to use his quickness and experience to do more against the run. Working in the rotation will be sophomore Ra'Shede Hageman, a 6-6, 302-pound star in the making with great size and phenomenal quickness as an interior pass rusher. Considered a top tight end prospect coming out of high school, he was moved to the defensive side and saw time in eight games making five stops. He'll be a bigger part of this year's line now that he knows what he's doing.
6-2, 295-pound senior Anthony Jacobs was the team's most productive lineman finishing fifth on the team with 41 tackles with two sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Extremely versatile, he was an end throughout last year but will move inside to a more natural tackle spot. The top-ranked recruit out of Minnesota in 2007 is a great 3-4 end, but he'll have to be a one-gap interior pass rusher. 6-2, 289-pound sophomore Eric Jacques out of Florida hasn't seen any work and he still needs a little time and seasoning, but he's quick and fits the Gopher defense.
Watch Out For … Hageman. It didn't do much of anything last year when he got his chances, but he's too big and too talented to not be a factor on the inside. He's not going to push Kirksey out of the starting job, but he should be a good reserve.
Strength: Veterans. Three starters are back and enough of the backups saw time that experience won't be a factor. There should be a decent rotation among all the prospects and all the options, and the young guys are going to get their chances right away, too.
Weakness: Proven production. The coaching staff is going to do everything possible to get more things happening in the backfield, but there's a long way to go after coming up with the worst pass rush in the nation.
Outlook: Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is going to be aggressive and is going to release the hounds to try to do something, anything, to hit the quarterback. Wilhite and Gregory-McGhee have to turn their speed and athleticism into sacks, and the quick, veteran tackles have to hold up better against the run.
Unit Rating: 6
State of the Unit: After sending a slew of good, athletic linebackers to the 2010 NFL Combine, Minnesota had to undergo a complete rebuilding job and struggled. The stats were there because of the position, but there weren't enough impact plays. If the offseason was any indication, though, the light might have turned on. Now there's experience, depth, and the potential for a big-time change after struggling so much against the run.
Will the team's leading tackler really be a backup? Senior Gary Tinsley struggled through a hamstring problem this offseason and was pushed hard for the starting job in the middle, but after making 90 tackles – 18 more than anyone else – and with 9.5 tackles for loss, a pick, and 1.5 sacks, he'll find a spot. At 6-1 and 237 pounds he has decent size to go along with excellent range and quickness, but he has to get healthy. Problems from charges of drunken driving and fleeing a police officer are well in the past, and now it's all about making sure he's 100%. As good as Tinsley might be, sophomore Brendan Beal is more talented. A Parade All-American, he was a star recruit for Florida, suffered a torn ACL, and transferred. A five-star recruit, now that he's healthy he could be special.
Junior Mike Rallis might have been a walk-on, but the 6-2, 236-pounder beefed up from a safety-sized 210 pounds and is better built for the job. He got a scholarship and is a proven player, but he missed half of last year hurt after being out earlier in his career with a broken leg. With 37 tackles, a team-leading three picks, and six tackles for loss, he's a baller. 6-2, 229-pound junior Spencer Reeves has 4.5 speed and the versatility to play inside or out. He got two starts and played in 11 games, finishing with 23 tackles and two tackles for loss, but he didn't use his wheels and athleticism enough to make big things happen.
6-0, 217-pound junior Keanon Cooper followed up a strong, 43-tackle first season by finishing third on the team with 68 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss. He's not all that big and didn't do enough to get into the backfield or make things happen when the ball was in the air, but he can move and he can be used as a pass rusher. Sophomore Aaron Hill was a great high school basketball player and a Missouri all-state track star, and he saw a little time in every game starting twice making 14 tackles with a fumble recovery.
Watch Out For … Beal. If he didn't suffer a knee injury, he'd probably be a starting linebacker for Florida this year. If he can consistently show off the range and hitting ability that made him a can't-miss SEC defender, the Gophers will have a steal.
Strength: Experience. Rallis, Tinsley, and Cooper are good veterans and Hill and Reeves are ready to do more. Throw Beal in the mix and the Gophers have a great-looking linebacking corps with a nice rotation.
Weakness: Run defense. The linebackers can tackle, but they don't make enough big stops and they didn't do much of anything to get into the backfield. The new coaching staff will try to change that by sending the outside defenders more at the quarterback, but they have to prove they can do it.
Outlook: What was considered the team's biggest weakness going into last year wasn't all that bad, and now it could be the strength of the defense. If Beal lives up to his potential and possibilities, and if Rallis, Cooper, and Tinsley can turn their experience into more big plays, there's reason to be excited about the next few years. Tinsley is the only senior.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: With the worst pass rush in college football not helping out the cause, the pass defense was a disaster against anyone who could throw the ball deep. The Gophers finished 113th in the nation in pass efficiency defense, but because teams were so busy running the ball the final pass defense numbers weren't all that bad allowing just 201 yards per game. The defensive backs might have to spend another year working without the help of any pressure up front.
The corner situation should be interesting with two of the team's best athletes fighting for one spot, with each one likely to see time as a nickel or dime defender. Senior Troy Stoudermire is a next-level kick return talent and was the team's leading returning receiver going into last year, but he moved over to the defensive side, started six games, and finished with 37 tackles with a pick, five broken up passes, and two tackles for loss. At 5-10 and 195 pounds he's not all that huge, but he packs a wallop, coming up with two forced fumbles last year, and has the athleticism to hang with any receiver in the Big Ten. He'll battle with junior Michael Carter, a 5-11, 182-pound veteran who started four games last year and made 24 tackles with two picks and a tackle for loss. The cousin of former Gopher great and 1999 Thorpe winner, Tyrone Carter, Michael has similar skills and quickness to become a lock-down defender on one side.
Stepping in at the other corner spot will be Brock Vereen, a 6-0, 181-pound sophomore who started four times as a true freshman, including the season finale against Iowa, and came up with 10 tackles. However, he didn't do anything against the pass. With good size, smarts, and excellent athleticism, he has all the makings of a top cover-corner, and he'll get his chance to be the main man on the other side of Stoudermire. 5-11, 178-pound junior Kyle Henderson got starts against Wisconsin and Ohio State and was a huge part of the rotation making 33 tackles with two broken up passes. The transfer from Minnesota-Mankato was originally a running back before moving over to the defensive side, and he's good enough and versatile enough to play anywhere.
5-11, 195-pound senior Kim Royston has had an interesting career. The former Wisconsin Badger transferred to Minnesota, finished third on the team in 2009 with 86 tackles, and was all set to become one of the Big Ten's top players last year. And then he broke his leg. Despite suffering the injury in spring practice, he was expected to be back and a part of the mix at some point last year, but he kept getting hit with setbacks and ended up getting a year of medical hardship. On the plus side, he has had more than a year to recover and now should be one of the team's leading tacklers at one of the safety spots.
Sophomore James Manuel is a big 6-2, 209-pound hitter who saw a little time in every game and started the first three games of the year. He finished with 29 tackles in his true freshman year with a pick, but he spent most of the year as a key backup. Now he'll get his shot at the full-time role, but he has to do more against the pass. He'll battle with 6-0, 196-pound sophomore Kenny Watkins, who made five tackles as a true freshman, and 6-2, 172-pound senior Christyn Lewis, a talented JUCO transfer who got five starts and finished with 31 tackles. Watkins is a tremendous athlete who can jump out of the stadium and runs a 4.4, while the versatile Lewis was a top recruit who was snagged away from BYU.
Watch Out For … the return of Royston. He might not be the best ball-hawker around, but he's a great tackler with good smarts and nice range. For a defensive backfield that needs veterans and sound playmakers, his return to form will be a huge plus.
Strength: Corner. The starting foursome should be strong, but the corners will shine with Stoudermire a phenomenal athlete and Vereen a rising force on the other side. If Carter really is a backup, he's a great one to have in reserve or use as a nickel defender.
Weakness: Pass rush. It would be nice to see what this group could do if opposing quarterbacks didn't have 15 days to throw. Again, the coaching staff is working on it, but there won't exactly be a reincarnation of the '85 Bears up front.
Outlook: Somewhat quietly, the Gophers will be good here. The return of Royston is big, Stoudermire should shine now that he knows what he's doing, and Manuel and Vereen are good young players to work around. If they get ANY help from the front seven, the defensive backs will be in for a good year.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: Eric Ellestad was decent inside the 40, but not great, finishing his senior year hitting 11-17 field goals and going 6-for-6 inside the 30. The hope is that NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne can be a bit of an upgrade with 6-4, 180-pound size and a good, strong leg that can blast the ball out of the end zones on kickoffs or be used as a punter. The former soccer player is still getting used to football, but he's accurate and should be fine after hitting all five of his PATs and a 25-yard field goal in a game for the Wolfpack.
The punting game was the worst in America netting a pathetic 30.94 yards per punt a year after being among the best in the Big Ten. Sophomore Dan Orseske averaged just 36.1 yards per kick and didn't get any blast on his kicks. However, he hung the ball up in the air forcing 16 fair catches, and he put 15 kicks inside the 20. He was supposed to be the starter a few years ago, got hit with a case of mono, and he ended up redshirting. Better than his stats, he'll be fine if he gets a little help from the coverage team.
Bryant Allen was the main punt returner last year, averaging 12.2 yards on his four tries, but WR Brandon Green was also good on his four attempts averaging 9.2 yards per try. Corner Troy Stoudermire is one of the nation's elite kickoff returners averaging 27.2 yards per attempt. Explosive, consistent, and a threat every time he touches the ball, he's a weapon.
Watch Out For … Orseske to be better. He did a nice job when it came to his accuracy and hanging the ball up in the air, but he has to start airing it out more. Getting two kicks blocked wasn't a plus, but if he gets time, he'll up the average to around 40 yards per kick.
Strength: Stoudermire. Dangerous, he averaged 25.8 yards per return two years ago, 24.6 yards per pop in 2009, and 27.2 yards per return last year. He's an All-America caliber star.
Weakness: Punt coverage. Orseske didn't have a great year, but he got no help whatsoever from a coverage team that allowed a whopping 15.2 yards per try and a score on the eight attempts.
Outlook: The coverage teams have to be far better, and they will be after a concerted effort has been made to improve one of the team's weakest spots. Orseske is fine and Hawthorne will be good in time, but the stars are the returners. Stoudermire will be avoided whenever possible, so other returners have to step up when they get a shot.
Unit Rating: 5.5
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