Sandell: Linebacker remains 'biggest unknown' for Gophers defense
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Armed with the self-imposed high expectations common among college football coaches, Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys admits he's "little greedy."
Of course, he understands and is prideful of the improvements his defense made in the second year of the Jerry Kill era.
Claeys help engineer a considerable revitalization of a formerly outright lackluster defense. The Gophers' points allowed average dropped by seven points to a respectable 24.7 per game mark, opponents gained almost 50 yards less per game (358.6 ypg -- No. 5 in the Big Ten), and most impressively their pass defense rose from the low-tier of the FBS rankings to 12th best in the nation (186.6 ypg).
None of that is lost on Claeys, but he is fully aware of the defense's shortcomings.
As he sat in the coaches meeting room of the Gibson-Nagurski complex one month into the offseason, Claeys didn't shy from expressing a sense of unfulfillment from the past season. A multitude opportunities for the defense to take another leap forward, he feels, fell to the wayside at times.
"I feel disappointed in some aspects," Claeys said. "I thought we could have played more consistent at times and maybe kept a few more points off the board. But at the same time we made a lot of strides."
"I'm not displeased. I guess I'm just a little selfish in the fact that I think we had an opportunity to get two or three more wins had we made just a few more plays on defense."
There's no doubting periodic defensive lapses indeed contributed to several games being pushed out of reach for the Gophers -- see: the first half at Iowa and the debacle in Lincoln, which Claeys shook his when recalling it, "I try to forget it, but Nebraska was the one that hurt."
It's hard to be overly critical in evaluating the Gophers' defense when the offense continually struggled in the Big Ten season to hold up its end. That factor was punctuated by the offense's failure to score more than 14 points in six different games. All six were losses, but in four of those the Gophers were facing manageable halftime deficits of eight points or less, only to watch the defense eventually falter when the offense couldn't provide necessary relief.
As a whole, the Gophers didn't undergo the all-around transformation needed to uproot the bounty of naysayers that surround the program. That was never a realistic scenario last season given the nature of Kill's ground-up rebuilding attempt. But the signs of progress were there. The Gophers lacked a "signatures win" -- victories against Syracuse and Purdue were as close as they came. However, they did enough to post six wins, doubling their win total from 2011, and earn an invite to the Meineke Car Care Bowl -- the program's first in two years.
A six-win season and a low-level bowl appearance in a season filled with erratic highs and lows won't satisfy a fan base so starved for success and hesitant to buy into any hopeful signs for fear of yet another letdown in an almost half-century full of them.
And frankly, it shouldn't be satisfying, thus Claeys' inclination to point out his disappointments.
But despite that sentiment, the defense's gradual rebirth last season was by far the biggest positive to emerge, and showed the base from which the Gophers intend develop from. If this program is to take the form that Kill has preached is possible, it will move in that direction rooted by its defense
"You got to have high expectations," Claeys said. "We want to get it where we win games here on defense. That's where I'm most disappointed ... There's three games on there -- Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan -- that we should have won had we'd finished it off on defense."
"The offense didn't really have to do anymore. You always take their help, but that's where we want to get. Those three extra wins we can win because we played well on defense and not rely on one more score to win a ballgame."
To get there starting next season, the Gophers are banking heavily on the youthful, but experienced core they have put in place to stay on upward track. They will be taking a notable leap of faith with the belief that they have the proper successors to fill multiple vacancies.
Eight of the 14 players in the Gophers' small senior class were found on the defensive side, five of whom were starters -- CB Troy Stoudermire, CB Michael Carter, LB Keanon Cooper, LB Mike Rallis and DE D.L. Wilhite.
That leaves several question marks, but now the Gophers have openings to create with the options they have been developing for the first two years on the job. It gives them the freedom to work more specifically with the players they brought in.
In turn, however, the expectations on Claeys and his crew will be ratcheted up further, with the room for slip-ups markedly narrow.
Up front, the Gophers have a defensive line featuring a two-deep rotation of players that logged consistent on-field minutes all year. The D-line will be centered around All-Big Ten honorable mention defensive tackle, along with fellow returning starters Cameron Botticelli and Michael Amaefula.
There were plenty of missteps by the line last season as it folded in guys like junior transfer Roland Johnson, redshirt freshman Thieren Cockran and true freshmen Scott Ekpe and Alex Keith, but the unit played strong in increased doses. They were able to get elevated pressure on the quarterback, upping their sack numbers from 19 to 26. That was an improvement, but an area in which they could greatly benefit from at least four or five more QB takedowns.
The biggest knock on the Gophers' defense is its ongoing woes in stopping the run. Opponents racked up 2,236 rushing yards (172 ypg), allowing six different running backs to go for 144 yards or more. The defensive line took a steady amount of criticism for the run stopping issues, but rampant problems with missed tackles and wrong fits throughout the defense were as much, if not more, worthy of the blame.
"I'm prideful of it and it pisses me off, when you give up the run yardage like we did," Claeys said. "When you go back and look at the film, it wasn't because we got destroyed up front and they controlled the line of scrimmage. That's not it at all. It's either a fit or tackle more so than us getting dominated up front."
Of any position group on the defense, linebacker is the primary area of concern and intrigue entering 2013. Claeys calls it the "biggest unknown" facing the Gophers. The high number of upperclassmen on scholarship at linebacker limited what the Gophers could do last season in terms of getting playing time for their younger players and signing prospects.
Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis were the only linebackers in the Gophers' 2012 recruiting class. With the departure of starters Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis, as well as Spencer Reeves and Ryan Grant, the Gophers focused heavily on linebacker this recruiting season. They are currently expecting to sign four come National Signing Day on Feb. 6.
"We weren't able to sign a whole bunch of kids last year," Claeys said. "This signing class there will be more linebackers, so we'll have to rely on some young kids to come in and play."
"We will, without a doubt, improve our athleticism on the field at linebacker next year. But we are going to lose quite a bit of experience there."
Soon-to-be senior Aaron Hill, a starter in 12 games in 2011 and the Gophers' third-leading tackler (74), is expected to anchor the LB corps. Hill struggled early in the season, but turned into the Gophers' most productive and versatile linebacker by the end of the year.
Where Claeys will put Hill next season remains a question. Though Hill was used mainly on the outside, he was also inserted on occasion at middle linebacker. The starting MLB spot is open, without a clear replacement for Rallis in place. Hill is a possibility to take over the role, but the Gophers seem to prefer to keep him as an outside linebacker.
Incoming junior college transfer Damien Wilson, who enrolled in January and will be eligible for spring practice, is an early favorite to make a bid as a starter. Ranked fourth in the nation in tackles (76) among junior college players, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Mississippi native was primarily a middle linebacker for Jones County Junior College (Miss.). Lynn is also a possibility after a strong showing in the 15 practices leading up to the Car Care Bowl. Claeys threw out redshirt freshman Jephte Matilus as another option, saying, "It'll be his third year and it'll be time to see what he can do."
Claeys is not ruling out a scenario in which Hill would start at MLB, although he said wherever he is situated he wants to keep Hill there permanently.
"Even if he ends up at the MIKE, whatever it may be, I hate moving those guys all over," Claeys said. "Hopefully we'll be able to get him locked into position and the other guys will develop."
The secondary, which was the most improved position group for the Gophers in 2011, will have two new starters at cornerback with surprise standout Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire gone. Despite the turnover, the Gophers' current crop of defensive backs aren't much of concern in comparison to the linebackers.
All three of the Gophers primary' safeties -- Derrick Wells, Cedric Thompson and Brock Vereen - will be back. Transfers Martez Shabazz, Briean Boddy and Jeremy Baltazar were key backups at corner in their first year. The trio will be frontrunners in what is projected to be a heavy competition for the two starting roles. Claeys floated the idea of possibly moving Wells back to cornerback, where he played as a freshman before he emerged as a critical set piece at safety.
"I don't worry about the secondary," Claeys said. "We've got enough guys there that have played and some flexibility with young guys ... How's that all going to work out back there? I'm not for sure, but I just know that we have the people and the bodies to do what we want to do there."
Even with the lingering worries at linebacker, the "U" defense has the bodies and talent to at the very least maintain the level of success it had last season. They will be relying on a sophomore and junior-heavy lineup, but a group Claeys and the Gophers have expressed growing confidence in. The missed tackles and their inconsistent rush defense have to be addressed if the Gophers are to take the step in fulfilling Claeys' objective of winning games on defense.