Minnesota Preview 2006 - Defense
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Posted Aug 6, 2006

Minnesota Golden Gophers Preview 2006 - UM Defense

What you need to know ... The Gopher D always tries hard and it has its moments, but it doesn't have the talent or athleticism to hang with the better offenses. The front four is undersized and the back seven is a bit slow, so it's a full defensive effort to keep the dam from breaking. Sometimes it works, sometimes it gets ugly. Sophomores Steve Davis and end and Dominic Jones at safety are good young players to build around, while there are enough veterans and enough experience to hope for a more consistent season.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: John Shelvin, 74
Sacks: Steve Davis, 6
Interceptions: Trumaine Banks, Mike Sherels, John Shelvin, 1

Star of the defense: Sophomore DE Steve Davis
Player that has to step up and become a star: Redshirt freshman CB Keith Massey
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Willie VanDeSteeg
Best pro prospect: Davis (as a linebacker)
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Davis, 2) LB John Shevlin, 3) SS Dominic Jones
Strength of the defense: Experience, secondary
Weakness of the defense: Overall size, pass rush outside of Steve Davis

Defensive Line
Holding up against the run will be a big key for a slightly undersized front four with only one returning starter, but getting into the backfield will be even more vital after generating a mere 15 sacks last year. Steve Davis is the main man on the outside with the talent to be the steady disruptive force the D needs, but he'll need help from the other three spots since he isn't big enough to handle consistent double teaming.  Todd Meisel and Eric Clark are undersized, active tackles.
The key to the unit: Hold up against the bigger lines. There should be some production against the run, but the secondary needs this group to pressure the quarterback.
Defensive Line Rating: 6

Projected Starters
- DE Steve Davis, Soph. - 37 tackles, 6 sacks, 9 TFL
One of the Big Ten's best unsung pass rushers, the 6-2, 230-pound sophomore is back after starting most of last year at left end. He made several true freshman mistakes, and isn't the biggest lineman around, but his quickness makes up for most of his problems.

- DT Todd Meisel, Jr. - 14 tackles, 1 sack
A spot starter last year, the 265-pound junior appears ready to grow into a top producer. He'll start on the left side where he'll be active and should be consistent. At his size, can he hold up against the pounding running teams for a full season? That remains to be seen, but his drive and motor should help get the job done.

- DT Eric Clark, Sr. - 4 tackles
After starting out at defensive end, Clark bulked up a bit and has been a decent reserve at tackle. He's an athletic 6-5 and 265 pounds and should be a regular in the backfield, but he'll have to be a rock against the run taking over for Mark Losli.

- DE Willie VanDeSteeg, Soph. - 25 tackles, 3 TFL
After getting some experience and seeing a little bit of starting time as a freshman, VanDeSteeg should be ready to take a big step up and become a top producer. He's always going 100 miles and hour and has the skills to become a tremendous pass rusher.

Top Backups
- DT Neel Allen, Jr. - 10 tackles
A key reserve at both tackle spots, the 295-pound junior brings much needed size to the interior. He'll start out behind Eric Clark on the right side with the potential to grow into an anchor.
- DE Matt Stommes RFr.
At 6-7, Stommes has a huge frame and should be a strong all-around lineman on the right side behind Willie VanDeSteeg. He could grow into a tackle, but he's too athletic not to be used as a pass rusher.

This could be a bit of a problem even with three returning starters. John Shevlin is a strong all-around defender on the weakside, but the corps won't shine unless it gets more athletic and makes more big plays. The hope is for Alex Daniels to become an upgrade over Mike Sherels in the middle, but Sherels isn't going to hand over the starting job just yet. Mario Reese needs to be steadier on the outside.
The key to the unit: Use the overall experience to make up for the general lack of talent.
Linebacker Rating: 6

Projected Starters
- John Shevlin, Jr. - 74 tackles, 1 sack, 9 TFL, 1 interception, 2 broken up passes
Shevlin showed off a little of what he was capable of late in 2004, and then turned into one of the team's top defenders last season starting every game on the weakside. He's a sure-thing open field tackler with unlimited range, but he's a bit small at 6-1 and 225 pounds. He's a smart player who's always in the right position.

- Alex Daniels, Soph. - 14 tackles
One of the new stars of the defense, Daniels will battle with Mike Sherels for the starting job in the middle. He has more upside than Sherels with good size and the talent to become the team's top tackler. If nothing else, he'll play a key role in the rotation.

- Mario Reese, Sr. - 48 tackles, 2 sacks, 3.5 TFL, 4 broken up passes
Used as an undersized defensive end early in his career, the 6-3, 230-pound Reese is more natural as an outside linebacker. While he'll make a lot of tackles on the strongside, he'll disappear for stretches. With his pass rushing ability, he needs to be in the backfield on a more regular basis.

Top Backups
- Mike Sherels, Jr. - 50 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 6.5 TFL
One of the team's top returning tacklers, Sherels started most of last season in the middle and tuned into a strong pass rusher as well as a steady tackler against the run. Despite not being the best athlete in the linebacking corps, he has the experience to be a steady force in the middle in the battle with Alex Daniels for the starting job.
- Deon Hightower, Soph. - 4 tackles
After seeing a little bit of time as a freshman, the 6-3, 200-pound sophomore will be a key reserve on the outside behind John Shevlin. He's tall, fast, and talented. Expect him to grow into a disruptive force over the next few years.

Defensive Backs
The secondary took a hit losing strong safety Brandon Owens for the year with nerve damage in his shoulder, but the moving of Trumaine Banks from corner to safety should be a positive. The secondary is missing the true burner who can shut down a speed receiver, but everyone in the group can hit. Dominic Jones has the potential to grow into one of the Big Ten's top tacklers, while Jamal Harris is a decent veteran corner who should put up big numbers. 
The key to the unit: Pick off a few passes. The Gophers only took away eight last year and three came from the front seven.
Secondary Rating: 6.5

Projected Starters
- CB Keith Massey, RFr.
In a battle with Desi Steib for the starting job, Massey has more upside. He's a safety-sized 6-1 and 200 pounds with enough speed to grow into the team's top cover corner, but he's going to need time and the team will have to be patient.

- FS Dominique Barber, Jr. - 13 tackles
Barber will probably get the opening day call at free safety, but he'll have to hold off Trumaine Banks for the job. At 6-0 and 200 pounds, he's a big hitter with excellent speed. He has been a great special teamer and should grow into a top stat producer in the secondary.

- SS Dominic Jones, Soph. - 55 tackles
Is he the next great undersized Gopher safety? He's only 5-9 and 180 pounds, but he hits like a ton of bricks. He's quick enough to be the team's top kick and punt returner and could play free safety and has seen time at cornerback, but with his hitting ability he's best at strong safety.

- CB Jamal Harris, Jr. - 63 tackles, 8 broken up passes
While not a burner, Harris is a physical corner who finished third on the team in tackles. While he struggles with the faster receivers, he should be the team's top corner early on until some of the younger players get their feet wet. His improvement will allow Trumaine Banks to stay at safety.

Top Backups
- FS Trumaine Banks, Sr. - 57 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 interception, 13 broken up passes
He won't be a backup for long. After being a solid starter for the last 34 games, Banks is being moved over to free safety to try to get his experience in a key spot. He's great at breaking up passes, but he'll get beaten a bit too much.
CB Desi Steib, Jr. - 6 tackles
In the hunt for the starting corner job, the 6-1, 185-pound pound Steib has the size, but not a a ton of speed on the other side of Jamal Harris. He saw a little bit of time last year and should be great in nickel situations if he doesn't take over the starting spot.

Special Teams
The kicking game should be better now that the freshmen are sophomores. Joel Monroe and Jason Giannini will combine for the placekicing duties with the hot hand getting the nod. Justin Kucek is a decent punter who needs to hit more big shots. Dominic Jones will handle all the return duties with wide receiver Logan Payne the more dangerous punt returner.
The key to the unit: There needs to be a bit more range in the kicking game while the return game has to go from fine to dangerous
Special Teams Rating: 7

Projected Starters
- PK Joel Monroe, Soph. - 1-1 FGs, 9-9 extra points
Monroe took over late in the year when Jason Giannini struggled. He has to prove he can hit on a consistent basis from any appreciable distance and will have to battle to hold off Giannini.
- P Justin Kucek, Soph. - 37 punts, 1,456 yds, 39.4 yards per kick, 8 inside the 20
He had an average freshman year showing a little bit of pop, but he didn't take advantage of the perfect Dome conditions and didn't blast it too much. He has to be more consistent and more accurate.

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