2009 Minnesota Preview - Defense
Minnesota LB Lee Campbell
Minnesota LB Lee Campbell
Posted Jul 22, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Minnesota Golden Gopher Defense

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Minnesota Preview | 2009 Minnesota Offense
- 2009 Minnesota Defense | 2009 Minnesota Depth Chart
- 2008 UM Preview | 2007 UM Preview | 2006 UM Preview

What you need to know: Ted Roof got his defense to hit, and hit, and hit some more. While things fell apart over the second half of last year, the defense was far better at tackling than it was in 2007 and was great at forcing turnovers. Now Roof is gone, taking over the Auburn defense, and in comes veteran defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove to keep the Gopher defense aggressive while sticking with the basics. There won’t be many creative blitzes or funky schemes, hoping that the overall experience and the upgrade in athleticism will be enough. The pass rush might be better, even with the loss of Willie VanDeSteeg, with Cedric McKinley a promising playmaker at one end and with two good tackles in Garrett Brown and Eric Small to collapse the pocket. Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence are good veteran linebackers, but the real stars might be a year away with Keanon Cooper, Spencer Reeves, and Sam Maresh, all backups, certain to be major playmakers in the near future. The secondary is solid but unspectacular with Wisconsin transfer Kim Royston playing a key role at safety and Traye Simmons emerging as one of the Big Ten’s better corners.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Lee Campbell, 80
Sacks: Lee Campbell, Simoni Lawrence, 4
Interceptions: Traye Simmons, 4

Star of the defense: Senior LB Lee Campbell
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DE Anthony Jacobs
Unsung star on the rise: Junior S Kim Royston
Best pro prospect: Campbell
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Campbell, 2) CB Traye Simmons, 3) S Kyle Theret
Strength of the defense: Experience, Cornerback
Weakness of the defense: Production against good passing teams, Consistency

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The biggest loss on the line, and the defense, is Willie VanDeSteeg, the playmaking sacker who came up with 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. The new star of the show could be Cedric McKinley, a former JUCO transfer who started out his career at Troy before dominating at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC. He’s 6-5, 262 pounds and extremely quick making eight tackles and three sacks with two of them coming against Kansas. With the size to be strong against the run, his role will be to shine right away as a pass rusher.

A perfect 3-4 end, 6-2, 286-pound sophomore Anthony Jacobs will work on the end of the 4-3 and will need to do more than stop the run. The top-ranked recruit out of Minnesota in 2007, he was a pounding, huge running back to go along with his work on the defensive side. He saw a little bit of work last season with seven tackles, but he didn’t do much to get into the backfield with just one tackle for loss. He’ll be good in a rotation and will be great on running downs with the athleticism to keep too many backs from getting to the outside.

6-2, 295-pound senior Eric Small started every game but one as a combination tackle and end, but now he’s purely a tackle and he should be a good one. The former JUCO transfer struggled early on against the run and had a hard time against the bigger defensive linemen, but he stepped up his game last year with 25 tackles, 4.5 for loss, and two sacks. He had a fantastic spring looking even quicker into the backfield and tougher against the run.

Bringing the beef at the nose or at a tackle spot will once again be senior Garrett Brown, a 6-2, 310-pound senior who should be the star of the line. A massive defender who swallows up the run, he made 34 tackles and showed the quickness to get into the backfield for three sacks and seven tackles for loss. The interior pass rushing ability turned out to be a surprise, but the toughness against the run didn’t as a consistent producer all season long until he was shut out in the bowl loss to Kansas.

Projected Top Reserves: 6-5, 253-pound senior Derrick Onwuachi has the potential to become a tremendous situation pass rusher if he’s able to combine his size, quickness, and experience into one big season. He was fine early on last year but he got hurt and wasn’t much of a factor over the second half of the season finishing with just 16 tackles and a forced fumble. Most importantly, he didn’t come up with any sacks. That has to change as part of the rotation with Anthony Jacobs.

Ready to play a bigger role on the inside, literally, will be 6-2, 324-pound sophomore Jewhan Edwards. He saw work as a true freshman making eight tackles and a tackle for loss as part of the rotation from day one. Now the one-time star recruit from Pennsylvania will be groomed for a 2010 starting spot after working behind Eric Small.

6-2, 281-pound sophomore Brandon Kirksey has just enough quickness and athleticism to become a factor in the backfield when he rotates into games behind Garrett Brown. He made eight tackles with two tackles for loss in his limited work, but with his tackling ability and his all-around skills, he could become too good to nose play a bigger role.

Watch Out For ... McKinley. While he might not have a next-level burst into the backfield, he should grow into the role as the team’s go-to pass rusher. He’ll be able to pin his ears back and do everything possible to get to the quarterback on a regular basis.
Strength: Tackle. Brown and Small were terrific this offseason showing the potential to become one of the Big Ten’s best unsung pair of run stoppers. These two are experienced, tough, and just quick enough to get behind the line from time to time.
Proven backup ends. There’s promise with Onwuachi experienced enough and talented enough to do more, but without VanDeSteeg to count on anymore, the team needs as many pass rushers as possible.
Outlook: With an aggressive defensive style, the Gophers will find ways to get into the backfield from all four spots … at least that’s the hope. The key will be the emergence of last year’s starting tackles, Garrett Brown and Eric Small, who had great springs and should be solid all-around defenders on the inside. Now the pass rushing has to come from the outside needing Anthony Jacobs and Cedric McKinley to be regulars into the backfield. There’s good size, decent depth, and the upside to be a strength as the season goes on.
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: Unheralded and underappreciated, Lee Campbell had a strong year as the steady force in the middle with a team-leading 80 tackles with four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions. Tough and reliable, he started every game last season and has gotten better and better as his career has gone on as a big-hitter who makes every play that comes to him. The 6-3, 246-pounder doesn’t have a big range, but he’s a sure tackler and isn’t bad at getting into the backfield.

Replacing the ultra-reliable Deon Hightower on the weakside will be Nate Triplett, a 6-3, 239-pound senior who after spending most of his career on special teams. He wasn’t bad as a key reserve making 31 tackles last season with a tackle for loss and a broken up pass, but he’s been at his best as a gunner on kick coverage. While he’s not the greatest athlete, the former walk-on is versatile and experienced enough to be reliable.

After starting four times over the second half of last year, and being a fantastic all-around playmaker, is senior Simoni Lawrence, who made 66 tackles in his first season with the program. Undersized, at 6-1 and 218 pounds, he makes up for it with great range and good hitting ability. He was steady and consistent against the run, and was great at getting into the backfield with four sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. Able to play anywhere in the linebacking corps, he’ll start out on the strongside.

Projected Top Reserves: About to make a big impact in a variety of ways is Keanon Cooper, the team’s fastest player with 4.46 speed and big-time upside on the strongside. Safety-sized at 6-0 and 206 pounds, Cooper makes up for it with tremendous range and big hitting ability, at least in practice. He’s an all-around defender who’ll be sent into the backfield early and often and will eventually be decent against the pass.

One of the most interesting stories in college football, redshirt freshman Sam Maresh has overcome a tumor in his leg and heart surgery after a defect was found and wasn’t given a chance to make an impact in his true freshman season. The 6-3, 247-pounder has the size, the athleticism, and the mailing ability to be a star in the middle. Along with being a top linebacker, he was also one of the Minnesota's top high school wrestlers.

Working into the rotation in the middle will be Gary Tinsley, a 6-1, 224-pound sophomore out of Jacksonville who spent last year on special teams. He hasn’t done anything defensively yet, but he has the range and quickness to get into the backfield as well as be solid in pass coverage. He has the skill set to play anywhere in the linebacking corps.

True freshman Spencer Reeves will get a shot right away to shine on the weakside. With 6-2, 221-pound size, 4.5 speed, and sure-thing tackling ability, he was a top recruit for the Gophers out of Texas. He has the range and the upside to eventually be the star of the linebacking corps once he gets his feet wet.

Watch Out For ... Cooper. He’s not going to start, but he’s so fast he should have a few special packages designed to get him into the backfield. He could be the type of player who makes 17 tackles in his first year, but gets four sacks.
Strength: Speed. The coaching staff went out and recruited speed, speed and more speed looking for a more athletic linebacking corps. This group will fly all over the field.
Proven depth. The starters will be fine, but the real talent is at the No. 2 spot, and maybe, at No. 3 when it comes to Maresh in the middle. There might be a learning curve before this group hits its stride.
Outlook: This was a huge area of upgrade last year with the linebacking corps far more productive and far more disruptive. This year’s unit will be much faster and even more active, but there could be a lot more mistakes. The key, as basic as this might sound, will be tackling. Past Gopher linebackers struggled and allowed too many four yard plays to become seven yards gains because they couldn’t get the man down. The speed and athleticism has to combine with being physical.
Rating: 6.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: The secondary lost a key star in Tramaine Brock, the JUCO transfer who stepped in and finished third on the team in tackles while filling a role as an intimidating hitter at one of the safety spots. While he’ll be missed, there’s a chance his production will be quickly replaced by Kim Royston, who defected from Wisconsin, sat out a year, and now should be an even bigger hitter. The 5-11, 182-pound junior was a decent backup corner for the Badgers, and now he has matured into a terrific combination of speed, strength, and range.

Back at the other safety spot is Kyle Theret, a 5-10, 186-pound junior who finished second on the team with 78 stops, and led the way in solo tackles with 59. He also proved to be a solid ball-hawk making three picks and breaking up eight tackles. Extremely quick, he’s a free safety who gets to the ball in a hurry and isn’t afraid to be physical.

Former walk-on wide receiver Marcus Sherels made the move to corner last year with mixed results. He started every game but one, and he made 46 tackles with two interceptions and 11 broken up passes, but he was inconsistent. He’s a rail-thin 5-11 and 165 pound senior who now knows what he’s doing and should be far more comfortable on an island, but he’ll have to prove he can hold up after missing time this offseason with a shoulder problem. He’ll be fine this fall and could emerge as one of the Big Ten’s star corners and punt returners.

Former JUCO transfer Traye Simmons stepped in and produced from day one making 62 tackles with a team-leading four interceptions and 14 broken up passes on his way to second-team All-Big Ten mention. Lighting quick, the 5-11, 179-pound senior has no problems staying with the speed receivers, but while he’s physical, he can get pushed around a little bit when the ball is in the air. With his experience and his ball-hawking skills, he’ll have to be an even bigger playmaker.

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.

Projected Top Reserves: 5-9, 176-pound junior Ryan Collado was one of the team’s only returning starters in the secondary but was quickly pushed aside by Traye Simmons. Even so, Collado turned out to be a nice nickel back and backup corner making 22 tackles with an interception. Very smart, he doesn’t miss many assignments, but he has to do more when the ball is in the air to see more time.

6-2, 208-pound sophomore Mike Rallis walked on to the team and ended up starting in the Insight Bowl to close out his true freshman season. In his limited action, he made 20 tackles with a tackle for loss with eight stops against Wisconsin, and now, with his size, he should grow into a sure-tackling safety who adds more bulk to the secondary.

Former wide receiver Johnny Johnson spent most of last year on special teams. Now the 5-9, 186-pound sophomore will be a backup corner who could see a whole bunch of playing time if Marcus Sherels has problems with his shoulder. Very fast, he’s a good athlete who could make his biggest impact as a nickel and dime back.

Watch Out For ... Royston. It’s asking a lot for him to be Tramaine Brock, but he has corner speed and big-time hitting ability. He’ll be the main man in the secondary right away.
Strength: Senior corners. Sherels and Simmons aren’t the best pair in the Big Ten, but they’re good veterans who’ll make their share of plays. They’ll give up yards, but they’ll come up with game-changing moments, too.
Good passing teams. The Gophers didn’t exactly play Texas Tech or Oklahoma but they still got lit up. Illinois’ Juice Williams threw for 462 yards, Kansas cranked out 345 yards and five scores, and Wisconsin, whose quarterbacks couldn’t hit water if they fell out of the boat and were throwing passes at the bottom of a lake, threw for 242 yards and a score.
Outlook: The secondary was the ugliest part of a brutal defense for several years, and while allowing 240 yards per game and 21 touchdowns isn’t great, 2007 was a vast improvement. Forcing turnovers is the biggest key. The secondary will give up catches and yards, but there will be a huge pop to follow. Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels are solid veteran corners, while new starting safety Kim Royston should be in for a big year. Expect a little bit of an improvement, but anyone who can throw the ball with any sort of consistency will be able to do it.
Rating: 6

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Replacing Joel Monroe won’t be easy. He missed two kicks inside the 30, but he had a nice leg and connected on 12-of-16 field goal attempts. Junior Eric Ellestad has a nice leg and can be used as a punter if needed. At 6-2 and 200 pounds, he’s big, strong, and should boom his kickoffs.

Punter Justin Kucek was a weapon averaging 41.9 yards per punt with 22 put inside the 20 and forcing 24 fair catches. 6-1, 216-pound senior Blake Hauden walked on to the team a few years ago and hasn’t seen any time, but he averaged 43.7 yards per kick in high school.

For all the problems Minnesota has had across the board over the last few years, kickoff returns haven’t been a problem. Troy Stoudermire kept up the tradition of big plays averaging 25.8 yards per kickoff return and will be used more on punt returns even though CB Marcus Sherels averaged 11.9 yards per try. 

Watch Out For ... Stoudermire to be the Big Ten’s best return man. An all-around playmaker, as shown in spring ball, he’ll get the ball in a variety of ways, but he’ll make an even bigger splash than he did last year when he gets the ball in hands on special teams.
Strength: Kickoff returns. Minnesota got 23.1 yards per kickoff return from Harold Howell before he was kicked off the team after the 2007 season Stoudermire stepped in and was even better.
Weakness: TCF Bank Stadium.  Gopher kickers have always had the luxury of working in the Metrodome. Now they’ll be outside in Minneapolis weather. Come late fall, things should be far more interesting for the kicking game.
Outlook: The return game will be tremendous thanks to Troy Stoudermire, and the coverage teams have been fine since Tim Brewster took over, but the kicking game is a question mark. PK Eric Ellstad is a talent, but P Blake Hauden is a major X factor who won’t get the benefit of the dome stadium to wor
k in.
Rating: 6.5