2008 Minnesota Preview - Defense
Minnesota LB Steve Davis
Minnesota LB Steve Davis
Posted May 2, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Minnesota Golden Gopher Defense

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Minnesota Preview | 2008 Minnesota Offense
- 2008 Minnesota Defense | 2008 Minnesota Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Minnesota Preview | 2006 CFN Minnesota Preview 

What you need to know: New defensive coordinator Ted Roof, the former Duke head coach, is trying to get the woebegone Gopher defense back to the basics. Tackle, get into the backfield, and tackle ... and tackle. Problem one was getting into the backfield, with end Willie VanDeSteeg struggling early and then breaking his wrist, but Roof will try to get his front seven to generate more pressure to help out a secondary that struggled for the last few years. The linebacking corps needs to be more physical and has to do a far better job of tackling. Steve Davis and Deon Hightower are decent veterans, but they have to be far better. A slew of top JUCO transfers are about to take over the secondary with safety Tramaine Brock the star of the show. Corner Traye Simmons and safety Simoni Lawrence could start from day one.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Deon Hightower, 70
Sacks: Lee Campbell, Derrick Onwuachi, 2
Interceptions: Kyle Theret, 3

Star of the defense: Senior DE Willie VanDeSteeg
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Ryan Collado
Unsung star on the rise: Junior FS Tramaine Brock
Best pro prospect: VanDeSteeg
Top three all-star candidates: 1) VanDeSteeg, 2) Brock, 3) LB Steve Davis
Strength of the defense: JUCO transfers, safety
Weakness of the defense: Production, tackling

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The defensive problems of 2007 started up front with a lack of a pass rush. It didn't help that the team's best end, senior Willie VanDeSteeg, wasn't healthy over the second half of the year with a broken wrist. Even when he was healthy, he wasn't the terror into the backfield he was supposed to be with just one sack and eight tackles for loss and 29 overall tackles. At 6-4 and 255 pounds, and with plenty of experience, he needs to be a force. As a sophomore he cranked out ten sacks, and that's what the line has to get from day one.

Starting on the other side will be Lee Campbell, a 6-3, 250-pound junior who started most of last year on the left side before filling in for a banged up VanDeSteeg on the right. He made 40 tackles, two sacks and six tackles for loss and was one of the few Gopher defenders who got better as the year went on. The junior might not be an elite pass rusher, but he's active.

Back at his defensive tackle spot on the left side will be 6-2, 280-pound junior Eric Small, a former JUCO transfer with tremendous quickness and decent upside. He struggled way too much against the run, getting beaten on by the bigger Big Ten linemen, and he didn't make enough plays in the backfield with one sack and 2.5 tackles for loss with 18 overall tackles.

Looking to take over Todd Meisel's vacated spot at right defensive tackle, as one of the few who started every game last year, will be 6-2, 290-pound junior Garrett Brown after spending last year as a decent reserve before filling in on the left side over the final three games. He has good size and has good potential against the run, making 24 tackles and a sack, but he's not going to provide much in the way of interior defensive pressure.

Projected Top Reserves: JUCO transfer Tim McGee will find a starting spot somewhere. The 6-4, 300-pound space-eater from East Mississippi CC has size and end-like speed running a 5.0 40. Considered one of the nation's top JUCO prospects, he's the type of player who can be an anchor from day one.

The hope is for 6-5, 250-pound junior Derrick Onwuachi to become a situational pass rusher on the end behind VanDeSteeg. The former JUCO transfer showed off his great potential with 16 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss starting the second half of last season. To get more playing time, he'll have to be more consistent.

6-7, 270-pound junior Matt Stommes is a tall, decent backup who made 12 tackles and two tackles for loss in nine games. With his long arms and frame he was able to bat down two passes and was tough to throw around when he wasn't making big plays. He has the quickness and athleticism of an end, and he'll need to show it off inside.

JUCO transfer Cedric McKinley might not be the immediate star prospect that McGee is, but he has the potential to start right away at one end. At 6-5 and 250 pounds, he has a big, rangy frame, and he has the type of linebacker athleticism that should make him a disruptive force at times. Originally a Troy Trojan, he ended up starring for Mississippi Gulf Coast CC with 38 tackles and five sacks last year.

Watch Out For ... more production in the backfield. The defense was supposed to be far more active last year under the new coaching staff, and instead, things got worse. A healthy VanDeSteeg and the potential of Onwuachi and McKinley should change that.
Strength: Depth. While the production wasn't there last year, everyone got their feet wet and now the addition of McGee and McKinley adds far more talent to the rotation.
Pressure in the backfield. The run defense was abysmal, but the big overall problem was the lack of a steady presence in the backfield. The Gophers finished dead last in the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss, and job one is to change that.
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. That was the belief going into last year, and the production was worse and the pass rush was pathetic. With experience needs to come more big plays, steadier play against the run, and something the rest of the defense can count on.
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: The gauntlet was laid down this spring to seniors Steve Davis and Deon Hightower: be better.

The 6-2, 225-pound Davis is the leader of the defense from the strongside making 54 tackles and three tackles for loss with three broken up passes. While he's not all that big, he was used as an end earlier in his career, and while he wasn't bad throughout last year, he was out of the starting mix for a few games and while he's a big hitter, he wasn't nearly physical enough against the run.

The 6-3, 215-pound Hightower is the team's leading returning tackler making 70 stops with 9.5 tackles for loss, but he didn't do nearly enough against the pass and he has to get over a shoulder injury. Used as a starter throughout the final nine games of the year at both the strongside and the middle, he'll be an undersized starter on the inside. Built like a safety, he runs like one but has problems against the more physical blockers.
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.

Stepping in on the weakside, at least early on, will be 6-3, 245-pound junior Rex Sharpe, one of the team's bigger linebackers. The JUCO transfer is a great athlete who hits like a ton of bricks. A big-time tackler, he made 105 stops last year for Butler County CC, and now he's expected to make a big impact.

Projected Top Reserves: While Hightower might be one of the team's top returning defenders, he has to be really good, really early or else star freshman Sam Maresh will take over. The 6-3, 235-pounder has star written all over him with the run stopping ability, and the size, the defense desperately needed last year. A pure middle linebacker, he's a mauler with decent athleticism. Along with being a top linebacker, he was also one of the Minnesota's top high school wrestlers.

6-2, 215-pound former walk-on Kevin Mannion was a key backup for most of the year and then got a chance to show what he could do late in the year starting three of the final four games. While the senior isn't a top talent, and he could get lost in the shuffle with more talented new players involved, he's a veteran who made 34 tackles last year with a broken up pass.

Junior Nathan Triplett could play either in the middle or on the strongside. He made nine tackles last year seeing a little time in both spots, but he'll likely start out behind Davis on the strongside. At 6-3 and 240 pounds, the former walk-on brings more size to the mix and has decent range.

One of the best athletes in the corps will be Andre Tate, a good running back recruit two years ago, he was quickly moved over to the defensive side where he's expected to push for time on the weakside behind Sharpe. At only 6-2 and 210 pounds, he has to use his athleticism to get on the field.

Watch Out For ... Maresh. For the last several years, the Gophers have been missing a killer linebacker who cleans everything up. Maresh could be that guy. If he's the real deal this fall, he could step in at middle linebacker and Hightower could move to the weakside.
Strength: Self-awareness. The linebacking corps has to be a lot better, and the top returning players, Davis and Hightower, know this. These are smart players who have experience, and they're willing to do whatever it takes to be better. Far better. With the young talent coming into the mix, the competition should be terrific.
Proven production. The idea is to put out smaller, more athletic linebackers, but that only works if they fly all over the field and make a lot of plays. These group hasn't done that, and it hasn't held up well enough against the run. The younger players have more size, but the two main veterans, Davis and Hightower, aren't exactly bulky.
Outlook: The hope was for the linebackers to be the stars last year, and it didn't happen. The line needs to improve the fastest, but the only way the defense is better is if the linebackers start becoming major producers. Davis and Hightower are fine, but for this group to be good, the unknowns like Maresh, Sharpe and Tate have to be excellent.
Rating: 6

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: The team's new star will be Tramaine Brock, a big-league JUCO transfer who stepped in this spring and immediately was the leader of the secondary. A tone-setting hitter at free safety, he's fast enough to move to corner if needed with sub-4.4 wheels. While he's not huge at 6-0 and 187 pounds, he's so fast and so far ahead of most of the DBs talent-wise, it'll be a shock if the junior isn't an All-Big Ten selection before his career is up.

The one plus in the secondary was Dominique Barber, who led the team with 100 tackles and eight tackles for loss from his strong safety spot, but now he's gone. While JUCO transfer Simoni Lawrence will likely start at some point, sophomore Kyle Theret has the starting experience to be the main man right away. Not all that big at 5-10 and 185 pounds, he used his quickness to lead the team with three interceptions with 39 tackle sand two tackles for loss as a free safety. Now he'll be needed at strong safety.

The one returning starter who's almost assured of a job is Ryan Collado, a 5-9, 170-pound sophomore who started for most of last year making 51 tackles and two tackles for loss with four broken up passes, but he didn't pick off a pass. He spent most of his year trying to help out the run defense, but now his job will be to turn into a lock-down corner. The jury is still out on whether or not he can do it.

While Collado will start, he might not be the team's No. 1 corner if JUCO transfer Traye Simmons is the real deal. The 5-11, 175-pound junior is a lightning quick, active athlete who could see time as a punt returner as well as a DB. He's a good tackler who was considered among the nation's best JUCO defensive backs, and now he's expected to step off the bus and produce this fall.

Projected Top Reserves: Putting the pressure on Theret for a job will be JUCO transfer Simoni Lawrence, a 6-1, 205-pounder who'll immediately be one of the best athletes on the defense. A great hitter who can move, he'll find a spot somewhere in the secondary. How athletic is he? He was going to play at Penn State as a running back before having to go the JUCO route.

Moving over from the offense is wide receiver Marcus Sherels, a 5-11, 165-pound junior who made three catches for 46 yards and a score, but he spent most of his time on special teams. Able to be used as a kick returner, he's a speedy option who needs to show he can play at corner to battle Simmons for a job.

Watch Out For ... Brock. Minnesota always seems to have one safety who does a little of everything, and Brock should be that guy right away. He stepped in this spring and made the secondary his. He'll be the one who turns things around, if things are turned around.
Strength: The new guys. Considering the secondary was the worst in the Big Ten, so any new blood could only make things better. Brock, Simmons, and Lawrence should give the Gophers a ready-made secondary that can produce.
Pass defense. At least things got a bit better finishing 115th in the nation after finishing 117th in the country in 2006. The pass rush didn't help things out, there wasn't one to give the corners a break, but the defensive backs didn't do enough to when they had their chances. Only three players made interceptions and two of them are gone. As a defense, the Gophers picked off seven passes.
Outlook: The secondary has been abysmal for the last few seasons, but now things are on the verge of changing with a more aggressive overall defensive scheme, more expected from the pass rush, and the infusion of some excellent new talents ready to change the make-up and the attitude of a beleaguered unit. Miracles are expected right away, but while the safeties should be fantastic, the corners are an X factor, and that's putting it nicely.
Rating: 5.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Senior Joel Monroe was one of the team's bright spots hitting seven of nine field goals with the two misses coming from beyond 40 yards. With a good enough leg to nail a 54-yarder against Iowa, he'll get more chances from deep.

Senior punter Justin Kucek has been fantastic at putting kicks inside the 20 with 41 over the last two years. He averaged 42.7 yards per kick, but he didn't get much help from his punt coverage team. He doesn't have a monster leg, but he hit one 61 yards.

The Gophers haven't had much luck with returners. Dominic Jones was a great one and got into trouble and was kicked off the team last year, and then Harold Howell, one of the Big Ten's best kickoff returners averaging 23.1 yards per return, was booted this off-season. Now it'll be up to corner Marcus Sherels to take over after averaging 21.4 yards per kickoff return. David Pittman will get a look as the punt returner, but Eric Decker could see some time.

Watch Out For ... Monroe to get more chances. After proving he has just enough leg to air it out, and after being automatic from close range, he'll get plenty of shots to make big kicks. Last year, the team was in so many shootouts that there weren't too many key opportunities.
Strength: Monroe and Kucek. These two are reliable veterans who'll be two of the team's better, more consistent players. The coaching staff doesn't have to worry too much about the kicking game.
Weakness: Punt coverage team. Considering Kucek is great at putting the ball where he needs to, the Gophers giving up 14.6 yards per punt return is inexcusable. The defense doesn't need any problems with field position.
Outlook: This was suppose to be a major plus for the team last year, and for the most part they were solid. The punt return game was a major disappointment, but the kicking game was solid and Howell was great on kick returns. Now, Sherels has to show he can handle the job.