2013 Minnesota Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Minnesota Golden Gopher Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know:
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is doing a wonderful job of cranking out decent defenses without a ton of top-shelf talent. The pass rush that was the worst in the nation in 2010 came up with 26 sacks last season and was far more aggressive, and overall the progress showed finishing 33rd in the nation in total defense and 12th against the pass. The holes going into this season might have been patched in a hurry, helped mostly by JUCO transfers De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson at linebacker. Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman has the potential and talent to be an All-Big Ten star to work around, but the ends have to apply the pressure Claeys is looking for. In the secondary, corner is a bit of a question mark, but the safeties should be terrific.
Star of the defense: Senior DT Ra'Shede Hageman
Tackles: Aaron Hill, Derrick Wells, 74
Sacks: Ra'Shede Hageman, 6
Interceptions: Several with 2
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior DE Michael Amaefula
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB De'Vondre Campbell
Best pro prospect: Hageman
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Hageman, 2) LB Aaron Hill, 3) DB Derrick Wells
Strength of the defense: Safety, Rotation
Weakness of the defense: Defensive End, Cornerback
The Gophers did a nice job of getting to the quarterback on a regular basis, but leading sacker D.L. Wilhite is gone. Nose tackle Ra'Shede Hageman came up with a strong season on the nose making 35 tackles with six sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. The 6-6, 311-pounder is very big, very athletic and very active, and while he's not a true anchor, he's a good all-around tackle to work around. Everything will work around him on the inside, but he'll be the one who sets the tone for the pass rush, too. He'll be backed up by sophomore Scott Ekpe, a great-looking interior presence with 6-4, 281-pound size and great quickness. The Texas native came up with 14 tackles with four tackles for loss in his time in the rotation.
Back in a starting spot on the inside is 6-5, 290-pound junior Cameron Botticielli, an active presence making 21 tackles, but he didn't do anything to get into the backfield. He has the quickness off the ball to start doing more to get to the quarterback, and he has a great motor, but it has to translate into more big plays. Also in the equation is former JUCO transfer Roland Butler, who was supposed to be the new anchor up front coming in from Butler County CC. The 6-1, 286-pounder isn't massive, but he has a big base to potentially hold up more against the run. He came up with a decent year making 21 tackles with two sacks and five tackles for loss before getting knocked out for the year with an injury in practice. He's back and ready to go.
6-2, 244-pound junior Michael Amaefula needs to become the team's star new pass rusher after coming up with just 19 tackles and 2.5 sacks despite starting every game. Built like a big linebacker, he's quick off the ball and has the potential to be a dangerous pass rusher. While his steady play has been nice, he has to be spectacular. Finding a spot behind him as junior Ben Perry, a 6-5, 254-pound athlete who still hasn't turned his high school track star speed into production with just ten tackles and a sack last season.
At 6-6 and 238 pounds, Theiren Cockran has a very tall, very rangy athlete out of Florida with a nice first step. The sophomore got his feet wet making six tackles with a sack, but now he'll get a long look at the open end spot with Wilhite gone. 6-3, 237-pound sophomore Alex Keith made 14 tackles with 1.5 sacks as a part of the rotation. The Columbia, Missouri native got away from the Tigers after growing into an unstoppable speed rusher, and now he needs to be a specialist.
Watch Out For … Owen Salzwedel, a 6-6, 240-pound end from Wisconsin with a great frame and nice upside. He's not a speed rusher, but he'll work his way behind the line while using his wingspan to stop the run.
Strength: The athletic interior. Botticelli needs to be a bigger factor, but Hageman is a force who's able to make things happen. The reserves are quick and should be able to swarm.
Weakness: Consistent run defense. The front four can get to the quarterback, but there aren't enough tackles for loss and not enough big stops against the run. The back seven has to do way too much work and there are big problems against the power offenses.
Outlook: Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys puts a premium on being disruptive up front, and while his line should make some big plays now and again, it has to be more consistent. There's enough experience and enough options to keep everyone fresh and productive.
Unit Rating: 6.5
There's some work to do with the loss of big tacklers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper, but senior Aaron Hill is back after finishing tied for third on the team with 74 tackles with two picks and four tackles for loss. At 6-2 and 231 pounds he worked his way to get up to his current weight to do more on the strongside, but he's able to play either outside spot. 6-2, 214-pound junior Lamote Edwards is a former running back with excellent range, but he hasn't done too much with just eight tackles last season and 17 the season before.
The Gophers are digging deep in the JUCO ranks to come up with two other starters led by 6-2, 254-pound junior Damien Wilson, a big, tough option for the middle coming in from Jones County Community College in Mississippi. A pure tackler, he'll stuff everything funneled his way, but he can scoot to get around the ball, too. He's being brought in for the inside, while 6-4, 225-pound sophomore De'Vondre Campbell comes in from Hutchinson CC for the outside. Very tall, very range and very quick, the Fort Myers native can move and could quickly grow into a star pass rusher.
6-2, 225-pound senior James Manuel came up with a nice year making 50 tackles with three tackles for loss on the outside. He has a world of talent and athleticism, working like a big safety with great range on the weakside. He'll have to fight off Campbell for time, but he'll find a spot in the mix.
The linebacking corps could use Brandon Beal to play up to all the potential and prep hype. The 6-3, 250-pound senior went to Florida as a Parade All-American, suffered a torn ACL and transferred. A five-star recruit, he was expected to be the key new star to the Gopher defense before suffering another knee injury. He has superior talent, but he has to show he can stay healthy after making 16 tackles as a reserve.
Watch Out For … Chris Wipson. The fuss being made over the JUCO transfers is warranted, but Wipson could turn out to be the best new linebacker on the lot – in a few years. Only 6-2 and 210 pounds, he's built like a safety, but he's a big hitter on the outside and will someday be one of the team's leading tacklers.
Strength: The JUCO guys. Wilson and Campbell really should be fantastic and they should turn the position from a problem into a probable strength. Campbell has the bigger upside of the two and was the more impressive get, but Wilson could end up leading the team in tackles. They'll be a huge boost to a linebacking corps that needed the help.
Weakness: Power running teams. Overall the linebackers did a decent job last season, but teams that blasted away up front – Wisconsin and Michigan State – were able to come up with big yards and Nebraska came up with decent yards when it had to.
Outlook: Hill turned into a nice part of good defensive puzzle, and Wilson and Campbell will be two of the team's stronger newcomers who'll make an immediate impact. Manuel and Edwards will be disruptive on the outside, too.
Unit Rating: 6.5
The secondary did a terrific job last season, and while it loses top playmaker Troy Stoudermire, it should be fine helped by the return of Derrick Wells on the outside. The 6-0, 206-pound former safety came up with a whale of a season making 74 tackles with two picks and ten broken up passes, but he's needed at corner with his excellent size and good toughness. A fast and versatile hitter, he can do a little of everything for the secondary. If he sees time at safety again, 6-0, 197-pound senior Jeremy Baltazar should step in after making 16 tackles with two broken up passes. Physical, he could move to safety if needed.
5-11, 172-pound senior Martez Shabazz came in from the JUCO ranks and worked as a reserve making six tackles with a pick and three broken up passes. With the upside to be a pure shutdown corner, he's a potential ball-hawker making 21 plays on the ball for Trinity Valley CC. 5-11, 186-pound junior Briean Boddy also stepped in as a JUCO transfer as a top playmaker from Coffeyville Community College. With good size and range, he can play anywhere in the secondary, but he needs more time after making nine tackles in his first year with the Gophers.
6-0, 202-pound senior Brock Vereen is a decent veteran who could play safety or corner with the experience and résumé to be a difference-maker as a nickel or dime defender if he doesn't grab a starting job. A good tackler, he made 64 tackles with nine broken up passes with two picks, and with his smarts and athleticism, he should be one of the team's leading tacklers no matter where he plays.
Junior Cedric Thompson is a nice 5-10, 211-pound hitter who took over a starting job early last season making 43 tackles with two interceptions. The former high school running back can cut on a dime and has a good instinct to get around the ball. He'll need to be a leader at one of the safety spots, but 6-2, 208-pound sophomore Damarius Travis is due to make a big move after seeing a little time making eight tackles. The Florida native has a world of upside, but he needs more time on the field.
Watch Out For … Rayfield Dixon, who might be a smallish linebacker or a big safety. At 6-3 and 205 pounds, he could become a huge hitter who finds a role somewhere in the defensive back seven early on. Very quick and with a pass rusher mentality, he'll carve out a position.
Strength: Deep plays. The Gophers did an excellent job of keeping the big plays to a bare minimum. There were some meltdowns here and there, but for the most part the secondary did what it was supposed to against the better quarterbacks.
Weakness: Troy Stoudermire. He didn't come up with any picks, but he led the team with 82 tackles with three broken up passes. He was the leader and tone-setter for the secondary; his presence will be sorely missed.
Outlook: The potential is there to be great. The safety situation is strong, and while the corners are enough of a concern to move Wells, there are enough options and just enough experience to be fine. The sharper passers will be able to move the ball, but as long as the secondary is coming up with a few interceptions now and then, and if it can continue to keep the big bombs to a minimum, it'll be fine.
Unit Rating: 7
NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne was supposed to take over the kicking duties two years ago, and started off fine hitting 6-of-9 field goals, bur he got hurt and was Wally Pipped. Jordan Wettstein stepped in and way fine, but he wasn't great last season and didn't show much range missing all three of his kicks from behind 48 yards. Hawthorne has a great leg and should be consistent from midrange.
The punting game was disastrous stat-wise, netting just 34.4 yards per try, but junior Christian Eldred put 22 kicks inside the 20 and forced 22 fair catches to offset his 38.1-yard average. He has a big leg, but he worked within the system. Senior Dan Orseske is back, but he averaged just 37 yards per kick two years ago. However, like Eldred, he did his part forcing 20 fair catches.
Losing kick returner Troy Stoudermire and punt returner A.J. Barker is a big problem. Receiver K.J. Maye has the speed and ability to crank out big yards as a kickoff returner averaging 22.2 yards per try, and he'll get a long look on punt returns, too.
Watch Out For … Ryan Santoso, one of the nation's top dual-threat kickers with a monster leg and the ability to blast away from anywhere on the field. At 6-5 and 260 pounds, he's huge with good accuracy as both a kicker and a punter. However, he'll likely make his biggest impact as a placekicker early on.
Strength: The punting game. It might not seem like it with the net stats, but the punters do a nice job of keeping the big returns to a bare minimum allowing just 6.8 yards per try. It's a conservative punting game that works.
Weakness: Punt returner. The production wasn't all that great last season, so the team needed to find new options no matter what, but everyone who returned a punt last season is gone.
Outlook: The coverage teams have grown into a plus in the Kill era, but the kicking game has to become stronger. Minnesota needs to start winning the third phase on a regular basis, and that will only happen if the punting game gets above 40 yards a kick and the placekicking shows more range.
Unit Rating: 6.5
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