Breaking down the Gophers DBs: Secondary is a fragile work in progress
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Each Tuesday and Thursday until the Gophers football team opens fall camp on Aug. 4, 1500ESPN.com's Nate Sandell breaks down the "U" roster position-by-position, with input from conversations with coach Jerry Kill, as well as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
On the roster
• Troy Stoudermire -- Senior, 5-10, 200 pounds, Dallas.
• Michael Carter -- Senior, 5-11, 185, Pompano Beach, Fla.
• Derrick Wells -- Sophomore, 6-0, 205, Lehigh Acres, Fla.
• Cedric Thompson -- Sophomore, 5-10, 205, Calipatria, Calif.
• Brock Vereen -- Junior, 6-0. 195, Valencia, Calif.
• Martez Shabazz -- Junior (juco), 5-11, 165, DeSoto, Texas.
• Jeremy Baltazar -- Junior, 6-0, 195, Corona, Calif.
• Briean Boddy -- Sophomore, 5-11, 185, Wilmington, Del.
• Grayson Levine -- Sophomore, 5-11, 195, Eden Prairie, Minn.
• Steven Montgomery -- RS Freshman, 5-10, 205, Miramar, Fla.
• Kenny Watkins -- Junior, 6-0, 200, Detroit, Mich.
• Nathan Tow-Arnett -- RS Senior, 6-1, 205, Redwood Falls, Minn.
• Damarius Travis -- Freshman, 6-2, 205, Pensacola, Fla.
• Antonio Johnson -- Freshman, 6-0, 190, Cleveland, Ohio.
• Cedric Dicke -- Freshman, 6-3, 200, Cannon Falls, Minn.
• Ben Holcomb -- Freshman, 6-4, 200, Germantown, Wis.
• Eric Murray -- Freshman, 6-0, 178, Milwaukee, Wis.
• Cavonte Johnson -- Freshman, 5-11, 190, Edina, Minn.
• Kim Royston -- Granted a fifth year of eligibility after missing the 2010 season with a broken leg, Royston returned to start all 12 games at free safety in 2011 and led the stumbling Gophers defense with 123 tackles (10.2 per game, second-best average in the Big Ten).
• Kyle Henderson - After Stoudermire was lost for the season in Week 4, Henderson swooped in to fill the starting cornerback role for the final eight games. Henderson, in his second season at the "U," tallied 65 tackles (42 solo) and a pair of sacks.
• Christyn Lewis -- A starter in eight games at strong safety in 2011, Lewis ranked sixth on the team in tackles with 42.
When a defense surrenders an average of 31.7 points (second-most in the Big Ten) and 403 yards per game, problems obviously exist at nearly every position. The Gophers secondary shouldered a large amount of scrutiny last season in wake of its lack of depth and dearth of talent. Some of the criticism directed at the group wasn't completely deserved.
As a whole, the unit was overworked and overwhelmed, partly as a result of inefficiencies elsewhere on defense, starting on the defensive line. Allowing teams to rack up big gains, especially early in games, was a huge problem on defense last season -- the "U" was outscored 258-107 in the first half alone. Opponents pulled off plays of 41 yards or more against the Gophers in eight of their 12 games. Though the secondary struggled against the pass, the Gophers weren't as bad as they at times appeared to be, finishing ninth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed (216.7 per game) in front of Purdue, Iowa and Northwestern.
While second-year defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys attempted to do what he could with the secondary last season, he has basically had to rebuild the unit from an almost infantile stage. Despite a top-heavy senior class, the Gophers resorted to using a trio of true freshmen -- Wells, Thompson and Levine -- in some capacity in 2011. Six players -- Royston, Henderson, Lewis, Johnny Johnson, Shady Salamon and Chase Haviland -- who played in at least nine games in last season are gone.
The group left behind is youthful and mostly unproven. However, with the moves -- both internal and through recruiting - and the number of returning players who were thrown into the mix last season, some before their usage date, have given Claeys and the Gophers options they didn't have a year ago.
The call for increased speed and size on defense, primarily in the secondary, has been a weathered refrain for coach Jerry Kill and his staff. And that became a major focus throughout the offseason and in recruiting.
The Gophers looked first at what they already had. Vereen, an everyday starter at cornerback, was shifted over to safety, along with Wells. This opened spots on the corners to be filled by the incoming recruiting class. The Gophers needed defensive backs capable of being inserted right away, so they landed three junior college transfers, including Shabazz, who will compete for a starting spot at cornerback. They won't be the only newcomers as the unit's freshmen class is six-players deep.
"I don't think there's any question that we needed more speed," Kill said during an interview with 1500ESPN.com in June. "We needed more physical people playing those positions -- people that can tackle. We've move some people around to try to make our team better. The moves that we made, sometimes they're good and sometimes you move them and you go 'Ugh,' but I really like what we've done to help ourselves."
Whether the Gophers did enough to boost their output in the secondary to a passable level will be depend heavily on several players with intriguing promise, but who have little experience at the Big Ten level. Stoudermire's return, after getting a medical redshirt in 2011, provides the secondary with stabilizing veteran presence at cornerback
Gifted with startling speed and athleticism, Stoudermire switched to defense in his junior season following two years spent mainly as a receiver. Finally settled in at cornerback, Stoudermire was set up for a promising senior year -- two interceptions and 24 tackles in the first four games -- until a fractured left wrist ended his season. Granted an additional year by the NCAA in January, the 22-year-old Texas native is in position to be among the Big Ten's best on the outside. He is also a dangerous weapon on special teams, sitting just 315 kickoff return yards shy of breaking the NCAA's all-time record.
There will be steady competition opposite of Stoudermire for the other starting spot at cornerback. Carter is the most seasoned option and is likely to begin the year atop the depth chart. Carter was a source of frustration for the Gophers last season, vastly underperforming as he suffered through a rocky adjustment to the new coaching staff -- nine tackles in five games. He appeared mentally rejuvenated in the spring, logging solid time with the first team defense. But with a lack of top-end speed, it remains under question if he can handle the leap in responsibility the Gophers desire out of him.
Shabazz is undersized compared to Carter, but his speed puts him in the running as one of the fastest players on the "U" roster. Recruited out of Trinity Valley Community College in Texas, Shabazz enrolled in January and began quickly grasping Claeys' defensive scheme during spring practice. Shabazz will factor into the rotation, but how much impact he has depends on how fast he can adapt to upgraded competition come game time.
Fellow juco transfers Baltazar and Boddy are also top candidates for backup roles on the outside and could potentially battle with Shabazz for quality playing time. Kenny Watkins has been lost in the shuffle a bit. However, now in his second year at cornerback, he has an opportunity to fill a role on the backend of the rotation if he has a strong showing in camp.
The lineup at safety is not fully in place yet and will sort itself out during two-a-days. Vereen -- asked to move inside to safety shortly after the season concluded in November -- couldn't practice in the spring due to a knee scope he underwent on March 20. Though Claeys isn't concerned Vereen's absence from spring will set him back, he is still likely to require a brief transition period before getting comfortable at his new position. Vereen had his share of hiccups at corner in his second season, but he is a versatile, seasoned and cerebral player who continues to track upwards. Vereen will be in competition with Thompson, who played in the final seven games last year as a true freshman. Armed with an aggressive, physical edge, Thompson is being groomed as a key piece in the long-term outlook of the Gophers secondary.
Wells has emerged as a frontrunner and near-lock to get the start at one of the safety spots. He turned heads on the coaching staff early in the spring after bumping his weight up nearly 30 pounds in the offseason. Not only does he look the part of a physical, Big Ten-caliber safety, he has the quickness and improved field vision needed to play on an every game basis. Grayson Levine has kept his name in the running for a slot on the Gophers' two-deep and is a good bet to see his playing time significantly increase from the five games he appeared in during his freshman campaign. Montgomery, coming off his redshirt year, gives the Gophers another reserve option.
On paper, the team has enough depth available to decrease the need for the majority of its six freshmen to play in their first year on campus -- a luxury Kill did not have in 2011. Antonio Johnson, a three-star recruit from Shaker Heights High School in Ohio, has the best opportunity to challenge for a backup role at safety and on special teams. Damarius Travis, a sturdily built and quick safety, is viewed as a possibility to play this season, but it may benefit the Gophers more to redshirt him.
Tracy Claeys' take on ... Derrick Wells
"The reason everybody likes to recruit big corners who will hit and can run, too, is because if those guys do blow up and gain some weight you can move them into the box and now you have a chance to have an all-conference type player. I couldn't say that I guaranteed that (with Wells), but when you have a kid with that much length, any time they have height they have a chance to put on some weight. The good thing is if he didn't and he stayed in the 180s, he'd be a hell of a corner too. I believe that. It's really been a benefit for us. Now all of a sudden you get a big, athletic safety in there. There will be a few growing pains through the non-conference schedule, just a little bit there, because he hasn't lined up and played some game snaps at safety. But he's worked extremely hard on video. They'll be very minimal."
The Gophers took the necessary steps to shore up glaring weaknesses with their defensive backs, and the group overall better fits the mold of what Kill's staff is looking for. But the unit remains a fragile work in progress, not yet ready to hang with the Big Ten's upper half. Apart from Stoudermire and Vereen, the rotation is filled with inexperience. Wells is poised for a starter-worthy year, which the Gophers need from him. His fellow sophomore safety, Thompson, must prove he can build on the potential he has shown in glimpses. Shabazz, Baltazar and Boddy will have the chance to log significant snaps, but must first show they can make the adjustment to Division I FBS from the junior college level.
"I'm a little uneasy with the secondary," Claeys said. "One thing I do like about having the non-conference games early is those kids will have a chance to get there feet underneath them and go. As far as their abilities and being able to do the job, I couldn't be more pleased with those guys. But again, there's going to be growing pains, because some of them haven't played a lot of game snaps at the position they are at."
Position-by-position series recap