2007 Minnesota Preview - Defense

Posted Jul 16, 2007

Preview 2007 Minnesota Golden Gopher Defense

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Preview 2007 - Defense

- 2007 Minnesota Preview | 2007 UM Offense Preview
2007 UM Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Minnesota Preview 

What you need to know: What the Gophers lack in talent they'll try to make up for in intensity and experience. For good and bad, ten starters return along with loads of experienced reserves to give hope for a big jump in overall production after finishing 113th in the nation in defense. However, there was a method to the old coaching staff's madness as the D allowed yards, but went for the big play forcing 32 turnovers. The new regime will be far more aggressive and take far more chances; they can do that with a veteran group like this. The linebacking corps will be the strength, while Willie VanDeSteeg and the line should get into the backfield more often. Can the Gophers shut down a power running attack or a high-octane passing game? No and no, but it'll be better in all phases.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Mike Sherels, 104
Sacks: Willie VanDeSteeg, 10
Interceptions: Dominique Barber, 4

Star of the defense: Junior DE Willie VanDeSteeg
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DE Willie Dyson
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DT Eric Small
Best pro prospect: Senior FS Dominique Barber
Top three all-star candidates: 1) VanDeSteeg, 2) Barber, 3) LB Mike Sherels
Strength of the defense: Experience, linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Overall size, pass defense

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Minnesota has to get more pressure from the front four, and it should if junior end Willie VanDeSteeg gets a little bit of help. With a non-stop motor, the 6-4, 255-pound pass rusher is always working to get into the backfield cranking out ten of the team's 25 sacks to go along with 40 tackles and 14.5 tackles for loss. He's a consistent all-around defender, but he made the most noise against Michigan State with four sacks.

On the other side will be sophomore Willie Dyson, a 6-3, 230-pound speed rusher who saw a little bit of time as a true freshman making three tackles. He's the most talented player on the Gopher front, and he needs to play like it with all the attention paid to VanDeSteeg on the other side.

Senior Todd Meisel is a 6-4, 275-pound veteran who bulked up a bit last year but still had problems against the run only finishing with 18 sacks. He has the quickness and the drive to become a more dangerous interior pass rusher. Now he has to start producing.

The other tackle spot is more open with junior Eric Small getting the first look. The 6-2, 265-pound JUCO transfer is tremendously quick and needs to make consistent plays in the backfield. He he's not generating pressure, he won't be much good against the bigger Big Ten offensive linemen. 

Projected Top Reserves: 6-3, 285-pound senior Neel Allen is one of the team's most experienced tackles with 30 career games and 49 tackles with 37 coming last year. He doesn't do any one thing well, but he can step in and play either tackle spot.

6-5, 310-pound sophomore Otis Hudson is the team's biggest tackle option and needs to use his size as a run stopper. He saw a little bit of time last year after moving over from the offensive side, and now he'll play much more of a role.

Behind Dyson should be junior Alex Daniels, but he has to get over his legal troubles after being arrested, along with RB E.J. Jones and CB Keith Massey, for allegedly raping an 18-year-old woman. An interesting prospect, he started out last year as a big running back tearing off 155 yards and three touchdowns against Kent State, but he eventually moved over to the defensive line where he finished with five tackles.

Sure to grow into more of a role is sophomore Raymond Henderson, a 6-6, 255-pounder who's one of the stronger players up front. He's built like a speed rusher, but he'll be good against the run.

Watch Out For ... more production in the backfield. The defense will be far more aggressive under the new coaching staff, and it has the potential pass rushers to do it. VanDeSteeg should go ballistic with 15 sacks a possibility.
Strength: Options. While there isn't a ton of veteran depth to rely on, there's a good two-deep that should be able to rotate well and keep everyone fresh. There are plenty of different prospects and configurations to play around with.
Size for the run defense. The backups are big, especially at tackle, but the starters will rely on their quickness to make plays. While that's fine against most teams, the Gophers have to prove they can slow down someone's power attack. That'll only happen if Hudson and 300-pound junior Serge Elizee shine through.
Outlook: The production can't be any worse than last year when the line got shoved around by everyone and didn't get to the quarterback nearly enough, outside of VanDeSteeg. This group will attack, attack and attack, so it should be interesting to see if it can be more productive.
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: The veteran linebacking corps returns four players with starting experience. 6-1, 225-pound senior John Shevlin is back on the weakside with 32 games of experience with 134 career tackles. He has the range to get into the backfield when needed, and now he needs to use his experience to do more against the pass and be in a better position to break up passes.

240-pound senior Mike Sherels returns in the middle after leading the team with 104 tackles along with 4.5 tackles for loss. He's fantastic at doing a little of everything well breaking up six passes and intercepting three to go along with all he had to do against the run.

There's a battle for the strongside job with junior Steve Davis likely to get the nod. The 6-2, 235-pound junior made 48 tackles and 4.5 sacks being used as a defensive end. Getting into the backfield won't be a problem, and he proved he can provide a wallop of a punch on his tackles. Now he has to be consistent in all phases as an outside linebacker.

Projected Top Reserves: If Davis ever moves back to the line, 6-3, 210-pound junior Deon Hightower will be ready to step in to provide a speedy option. Built like a safety, he runs like one too able to be a disruptive force, especially in the open field, making 74 tackles and forcing two fumbles. While he's tough as nails, he has to make a few more plays at the point of attack and use his athleticism to do more when the ball is in the air.

6-2, 210-pound junior Kevin Mannion will back up Shelvin on the weakside after a nice year as a reserve making 19 tackles and two interceptions, both against Iowa. The former walk-on got three starts and could step in again if needed for a little while, but there's a big drop-off in talent from Shelvin.

In the middle, 6-3, 240-pound Nathan Triplett will back up Sherels and be groomed to take over next year. A top defensive line prospect coming out of high school, Triplett is a more natural fit for middle linebacker with his range.

Top recruit Logan U'u, a 5-10, 225-pound tackling machine of a JUCO transfer, will be in the mix right away for one of the starting spots when he gets to campus.

Watch Out For ... the linebacking corps to be the strength of the defense. The coaching staff is going get this group to try to make plays all over the field, and with the experience returning, there shouldn't be too many mistakes.
Strength: Experience. Shelvin, Sherels and Hightower are all longtime veterans, while Davis has seen enough action on the front seven to shine.
Pass defense. This group had a nightmare of a time against the short-to-medium passing games mostly because it's had to worry about stopping the run. Considering the attack mode the linebackers will be in, they have to make sure they're not too aggressive and get caught on quick throws.
Outlook: While there are enough veterans and enough overall production returning to hope for big things, everyone has to do a much better job in all phases. Since this isn't the most talented linebacking corps around, it'll have to get by on guile and savvy against the better teams. One thing this group can do is pop, and it'll force a ton of turnovers.
Rating: 6

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: Junior Dominic Jones has had an interesting career, and now it's taken a turn towards the ugly after being charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct. Suspended from the team, his status is up in the air pending the outcome of the court case. An undersized safety at 5-8 and 190 pounds, he hit like a far bigger player making 55 stops his first year. He's a corner, and a great tackling one, with 137 career stops to go with three broken up passes and two interceptions. While he's a peerless open field tackler, he's also quick enough to handle everyone's number one receiver. He's still learning how to cover like a top corner, but he has the tools to get there. He's also a brilliant punt and kick returner. Of course, none of this matters if he ends up being found guilty.

On the other side will be senior Desi Steib, a part-time starter last season with 25 career tackles and two broken up passes. He's a good tackler and while he's a good athlete, he needs to show the skills right away to be a top-flight Big Ten cover-corner.

Senior Dominque Barber moves from free safety to strong safety after making 74 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions. The son of former Gopher great, Marion, and the brother of Marion III, Barber has the speed to be like another corner in the secondary while hitting like a linebacker. He'll be an All-Big Ten selection if the overall defensive play is better.

Senior Duran Cooley started at strong safety late last year and now will be moved over to free safety. The former JUCO all-star made 45 tackles on the year and now should use his excellent athleticism to make more plays all over the field. He has the range and the tackling ability, now he has to make more big plays.

Projected Top Reserves: In the hunt along with Cooley for the free safety job will be senior Jamal Harris, a long-time starting corner who'll move over to safety but could go back if needed. He's a better tackler than a coverman and should flourish as a top reserve if he doesn't get the starting nod. He made 50 tackles and three interceptions last season.

Sophomore corner Keith Massey is a promising prospect with 6-1, 195-pound size and next-level speed. Now he has to get out of trouble having been arrested along with Alex Daniels and E.J. Jones for allegedly raping an 18-year-old woman. Assuming all turns out to be fine, he'll end up playing behind Steib and become a key player in nickel packages.

Watch Out For ... a noticeable improvement. Part of the problem last year was the lack of aggressiveness. Evidenced mostly in the collapse against Texas Tech, the secondary was forced to read, react, and come up with the big hit. That led to most quarterbacks being able to dink and dunk to their heart's content. That'll change now.
Strength: Decent veterans to play around with. Three decent starters return (assuming Dominic Jones is out of the mix) to go along with a ton of promise among the younger backups. The coaching staff will tinker to make all the parts fit after already swapping Barber and Cooley's jobs. Expect more changes throughout the year.
Can this group actually stop anyone? You don't finish 117th in the nation in pass defense and 99th in pass efficiency defense without having a boatload of problems. The DBs might put up numbers, but they need to be effective numbers.
Outlook: There will be times when good passers will bomb away and there will be plenty of mistakes, but at least the Minnesota secondary will go down swinging. It won't be a consistent secondary, so it has to come up with the big plays when it can and do its best to avoid getting torched.
Rating: 6

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Junior Jason Giannini is back after a good year after struggling as a freshman hitting seven of 12 field goals missing five from beyond 40 yards with two of the misses from beyond 50. While his leg isn't huge, he's consistent enough to be relied on to nail everything inside the 40. Helping out will be junior Joel Monroe, who hit two of three.

Junior punter Justin Kucek also returns after averaging 40.3 yards per kick. More of a directional punter, he put 18 inside the 20. It would be nice if he could air it out once in a while.

If he's back on the team, top corner Dominic Jones will handle the return game again after averaging 10.9 yards per punt return over the last two seasons and a whopping 24.7 yards on kickoff returns.

Watch Out For ... the special teams to be among the Big Ten's best. The kicking game won't set off any fireworks, but it'll be solid. 
Strength: Experience. The coaching staff won't lose any sleep worrying about the kickers. However ...
Weakness: Legs. Can anyone hit a big 45-yard shot to win a game? Giannini tops out right around 40 yards and Kucek isn't the type of punter who'll bail the team out of a jam with a 68-yard bomb.
Outlook: Solid. The coaching staff will take last year's performance in all phases in a heartbeat if it gets a little more pop to the punting game. The coverage units were better than fine, the kicking game is good, and Jones will earn All-America honors if he's found not guilty of an alleged rape charge.


Related Stories
2007 Minnesota Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Apr 16, 2007
2007 Minnesota Preview - Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Apr 16, 2007
2007 Minnesota Preview
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 16, 2007

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