Preview 2007 - Defense
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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.
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
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
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.
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.
Weakness: 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.
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
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
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.
Weakness: 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.
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.
Weakness: 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.
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
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.