Gophersâ€™ initial spring defensive depth chart starting to take shape
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Gophers are eight practices into spring ball, though the weather outside has disagreed with what season it is.
Temperatures in the 30s and 40s, plus an mid-April snowstorm, have kept the Gophers inside all spring and may keep them indoors until their spring game April 27 at TCF Bank Stadium.
The indoor setting hasn't hindered the team's progression in the first three weeks, but it has made the Gophers slightly more selective in when they schedule contact scrimmages.
While coach Jerry Kill would prefer to be outside, he has remained notably upbeat since the start of the 15-practice slate about the differences he has sensed between this year and his previous two seasons with the program.
"We haven't had to sit out here and scream and yell to get somebody to move," Kill said after practice Thursday. "They're more mature, because they're all older ... We haven't had a setback."
A scrimmage scheduled during practice Friday evening will serve as the basis for determining a preliminary defensive depth chart scheduled to be rolled out next week.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys had targeted having the two-deep put together earlier, but the team's recent bout with the flu bug, which has sidelined multiple players, partially led to postponing the first lineup draft.
With the season still five months away, it's far too early to get a firm grasp on how exactly the defense will look when the Gophers open the 2013 season on August 29 against UNLV.
But practices so far have given an indication as to what the initial depth chart could look like next Tuesday.
The secondary appears to be the most straightforward position group in terms of sorting out the competition.
Derrick Wells was moved from safety to cornerback to be a reliable stabilizer on the edge. The spot opposite to Wells is more open to debate. With senior Jeremy Baltazar having been slowed by sickness, Eric Murray, who played in all 13 games as a freshman is projected to slip into the first team spot ahead of senior Martez Shabazz and junior Briean Boddy.
Cedric Thompson and Brock Vereen, both of whom were starters last season, are currently at the front of the group at safety. Sophomores Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis, along with junior Grayson Levine, have also been rotating in and out this spring.
Senior outside linebacker Aaron Hill is about as close to a sure bet as the Gophers currently have at linebacker. Hill started 11 games in 2012 and was third on the team in tackles (74).
On the other side of Hill is likely going to be either redshirt junior Lamonte Edwards or senior James Manuel. Both are entering their second full year at linebacker.
"Lamonte Edwards has had a great spring," Kill said. "His athletic ability and speed is important. He's getting the repetitions. He's not thinking as much."
In one of the Gophers' key position battles, redshirt freshman Jack Lynn and junior college transfer Damien Wilson have been swapping reps in a bid for the starting middle linebacker role. Lynn, who has received a steady dose of recognition from the coaching staff this spring, has missed practice time recently as he is recovering from the flu. As a result, Claeys said he expects Wilson to handle first team duties for the time being.
Star defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, a hulking 6-foot-6, 311-pound 2012 Big Ten Honorable Mention recipient, continues to be the anchor on a defensive line that is beginning to form a needed layer of depth.
"If Ra'Shede prepares and works hard every week nobody is going to beat him," Claeys said. "We don't have anyone able to beat him out."
Determining who will start at tackle next to Hageman is still in question. Last year's starter Cameron Botticelli is the obvious frontrunner and has been alongside Hageman for most of the spring.
Sophomore Scott Ekpe, a steadily developing second-year tackle, is in direct competition with Botticelli. Redshirt freshman Yoshoub Timms is quietly putting together a noteworthy spring at his spot in the line's interior
"As far as an inside tackle for a pass rusher, (Timms is) the best one we've got," Claeys said. "In nickel situations he's going to have a place, because he's learning to play the run better. He's kind of like where Ra'Shede was two years ago. He does alright against the pass, but has to learn to play the run better."
Roland Johnson will also be a part of the mix at tackle when he finishes his recovery from an ACL tear that derailed his promising junior season. Kill has projected that Johnson will cleared to practice by the time the Gophers open training camp in August.
The bulk of reps at defensive end with the perceived "first team" have gone to redshirt sophomore Theiren Cockran and junior Michael Amaefula. The rotation on the ends has also included sophomore Alex Keith and Ben Perry. All four played in at least 12 games last season.
"We said we needed to get better in the defensive line and we have and we are," Kill said.
The offensive line was down to only 10 players on Thursday, with several guys at class, out sick or injured.
Offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig is still sidelined with swelling around his left kneecap. Pirsig, who has dealt with ongoing issues with his knee, was injured during practice last Saturday. The Gophers haven't determined how long the redshirt freshman will be out, but Kill has not sounded overly concerned.
"(Team trainers) are working on getting him back and going, but he's coming along," Kill said.
Pirsig joined center Zach Mottla (broken leg) and left tackle Ed Olson (ankle) has three offensive lineman currently in orange no-contact jerseys. Olson and Mottla won't practice this spring.
Now-eligible Ohio State transfer Brian Bobek, who is competing with redshirt sophomore Jon Christenson for top billing at center, missed his second consecutive practice due to illness. Caleb Bak, a starter in 11 games at right guard, was out sick as well.
Wide receiver Devon Wright has been shut down for the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery on Tuesday.
Fullback Tyler Hartman has been limited in practice with an undisclosed injury. Hartman was moved from the defensive line to fullback in the offseason.
• Kill has yet to meet new Gophers men's basketball coach Richard Pitino, though he has reached out to him by phone.
"But you know what? If I'm a new coach I'm worried about recruiting. I'm not worried about seeing the head football coach," Kill said with a laugh.
• Incoming freshman offensive lineman Alex Mayes, a 6-foot-6, 275-pound native of Van Alstyne, Texas, is expected to be at practice on Friday. He is accompanying his brother, Connor Mayes, on a recruiting visit to Minnesota.
After officially landing Alex in February, the Gophers are now going after the younger Mayes, who is also an offensive lineman. Connor Mayes is a three-star prospect, according to Rivals.com, and has offers from numerous schools, including the Gophers, Kansas State, Kansas, Colorado, Baylor and Connecticut.