Sandell: Is the Gophers defensive backfield getting underrated?
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Ask any member of the Minnesota Gophers' secondary if they were put off by the low ranking the unit has been given in several preseason publications, and you'll receive a sly smile.
They don't need to say anything. It's obvious they disagree.
And a strong argument can be made that Minnesota's secondary is being overlooked. The Gophers lost only one starter in their defensive backfield, which helped anchor a defense that ranked fourth in the Big Ten in points allowed and fifth against the pass (215 passing yards per game) in 2013.
That starter was standout corner-safety Brock Vereen, who went on to be drafted by the Chicago Bears. But even with Vereen gone, the Gophers return six players in the secondary who have started at least two games (safety Cedric Thompson, 19 starts; cornerback Derrick Wells, 16; corner Eric Murray, 13; safety Antonio Johnson, 7; safety Damarius Travis, 2; corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun, 2) and three others with viable in-game experience (senior Grayson Levine, sophomore Jalen Myrick and senior Marcus Jones).
"It's even more motivation," Boddy-Calhoun said of the "negative" reviews. "Because we lose one guy in the secondary and we're still ranked 10th. That just goes to show that we have to do even more to show guys that we can be a good secondary."
To be fair, it can be understood if some are cautious to buy into the Gophers and their trending defense. Yes, anchored by a resilient and sturdy defense, the Gophers turned a few heads a year ago with an impressive eight-win season - the program's first in 10 years. But widespread respect won't come until that initial performance can be backed by sustained success. Minnesota still has yet to fully shed the hardened skin of a program that has suffered through years of irrelevance.
Playing the role of the underdog is a tired cliché in sports, but like it or not, Jerry Kill's Gophers have thrived upon that mantra, weaving it into the fabric of the program.
As a whole, the Gophers still have plenty of flaws and remain unproven to a point, most notably at quarterback and in the passing game. However, the upward trend Kill has kickstarted in his now-four years at the helm has been built upon a defensive foundation.
In turn, any criticism or perceived slight plays into the hands of Minnesota's secondary.
There is a notable level of confidence and swagger to this year's DB group. Both players and Gophers coaches believe their secondary is the best they've had during the Kill era. By putting out that declaration, they now have a lot to live up to.
Minnesota's defense may not be ready to rise to the top of the Big Ten, but it is geared to hold its own among the conference's better half. For starters, the defensive crew, especially the secondary, needs to pick up where it left off.
The Gophers didn't allow more than 188 passing yards in any of their final four games last season, surrendering an average of only 155.2 yards through the air and a completion percentage of 59% (59-of-100). Only Iowa and Michigan State boasted a better pass defense in the Big Ten in that stretch.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys admitted the secondary is still in need of tweaking and improvements, but he shared the same confidence in the group's surging potential.
"I don't lose any sleep at night thinking about our secondary," Claeys said.
Claeys continued on about the entire defense: "I'm sure everybody thinks last year was a fluke and we lost two draft picks (Vereen and Ra'Shede Hageman), so we won't be worth a damn. But they have the right to that opinion until we play and have to prove ourselves."
The defensive backfield is sure to be tested early and often this season, with more than half of the teams on the Gophers' formidable schedule equipped with spread offenses.
Secondary-specific fall camp notes and observations
• Quiet and not overly flashy, junior corner Eric Murray flies under the radar at times, but he is arguably one of the top defensive threats the Gophers have.
Murray, who started all 13 games last season, has developed into a strong adversary for opposing quarterbacks. Even in practices, QBs Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler seem to think twice before throwing over to Murray's side of the field.
When out recruiting recently, defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel had a coach from a 2013 opponent tell him his team made the decision to stay away from Murray, because the "completion percentage wasn't worth the fight. Let's just go somewhere else with it."
• One question facing the secondary: Can senior corner Derrick Wells make it through the season without being derailed by injuries? Wells brings high-quality physicality and proven experience to Minnesota's defense, but various injuries have slowed him throughout his career.
Wells made only five starts last season, though he played in 10 games, in part due to nagging issue with his shoulder. With the advice of team doctors, Wells underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason. It appears to have been the right call as Wells says he finally feels back to 100 percent and has had no issues in camp.
"I have seen nothing out of him so far that he's hesitant about using that shoulder," Claeys said. "That's a great thing."
• Briean Boddy-Calhoun had a breakout showing in fall camp a year ago and looked primed to be a key piece for the defense. However, a torn ACL in the second game of the season ended his year in disheartening fashion.
By the time spring practice arrived, Boddy-Calhoun was already nearing the same form he had been in before. Now, 11 months removed from surgery, he said he feels better than ever. His coaches agree. Sawvel noted that Boddy-Calhoun's speed is 'up to levels it wasn't at before the injury.'
Boddy-Calhoun has been playing mainly with the second team defense in the early stages of camp, more a result of the secondary's depth, but he should get plenty of playing time in the defensive rotation this season.
"His mind is on different level than most people are in college," Sawvel said. "He can recognize splits. He can recognize formations. He can recognize backfield sets. He can recognize when receivers are inverted. You get him into a game-planning situation and he can play very well."
• Apart from needing a big year from Murray and constant production from senior safety Cedric Thompson, the success and depth of the secondary this season relies heavily on Boddy-Calhoun exceeding his pre-injury form and Wells staying healthy.
• Although running back Berkley Edwards offers stiff competition, sophomore cornerback Jalen Myrick is considered by his teammates and coaches to be the fastest player on the roster.
"He's unbelievably fast. I don't think he knows how fast he really is," Edwards said.
• Sawvel called Craig James the "most advanced freshman corner" the Gophers have had in the past four seasons. However, given the options at corner, the coaching staff hasn't made a decision yet whether to play him right away or redshirt him. Both Kill and Sawvel have mentioned they do feel the 5-foot-10, 180-pound corner could fit a role on defense and/or special teams.