Sandell: Wells, secondary serving as backbone of Gophers' defense
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MINNEAPOLIS -- No position group on the Gophers football team saw a greater developmental leap last season than the secondary.
Climbing back from its sketchy former self, the "U" secondary reentered the realm of respectability in coach Jerry Kill's second season.
The Gophers' pass defense ranked 12th in nation and fourth in the Big Ten with a 186.6 yards allowed per game average -- a 30 yard decrease from their 2011 total, when they gave up a conference second-worse 216.7 yds. In 2010 and 2011, opponents notched a 65% completion percentage or better against the Gophers. That percentage dropped to 57.2% last season, the team's lowest mark since the 2005 season (56.8%)
The improvements made to their pass defense didn't fully balance out their struggles stopping the run last season (172 ypg, 22 of their 37 touchdowns allowed came on the ground) and a tendency to give up high yardage plays.
But the strengthening of the secondary has served as the foundation of the defensive rebuilding attempt being overseen by Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
With the Gophers entering their second week of spring ball, sharpening a defensive backs unit without two of its key playmakers from 2012 has become a primary focus. The true test of the vitality of the pieces Kill's staff has been putting in place for the last two seasons starts now.
The departure of starting cornerbacks Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter created a hole on the edges of the Gophers' secondary.
In a move to partially combat the issue, junior Derrick Wells has been shifted from safety back to cornerback, the position he originally held as a freshman.
Wells, with his upper tier speed and the physicality to go with a well-built frame, is arguably the signature piece of the secondary. As a sophomore, Wells broke up 15 passes, with two interceptions, and finished tied for third on the team in total tackles (74).
Viewing Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson and budding sophomore Damarius Travis as the top layer of a satisfiable amount depth at safety, the Gophers opted to flip Wells to cornerback to provide a dangerous option on the edge of the defense.
"I think it's the right move for him and it's the right move for us with a two-year approach," Claeys said. "I think it'll build some consistency over two years. He's got the size. He's played awfully well these first three practices. He's natural at it ... It's not a one year move or we wouldn't have done it."
From a sideline view, the transition process has been minimal. The Gophers have the flexibility to use Wells at both cornerback and safety, but if spring practice is any indication he will remain primarly on the corners. His timing and his downfield presence was solid in the Gophers' first of five weeks of spring practices. However, Wells is still trying to restore the comfort-level he had built up in his one year at safety.
"I say I'm more comfortable at safety, because I played a whole season at safety," Wells said. "It's getting back out there, getting used to it, because I was in the box a lot."
Limiting Wells' time in the heart of the defense, away from the heavy load of contact, was also a large factor in the position change. An ugly laceration on his right leg, suffered in the Gophers' Oct. 13 match-up against Northwestern, ended up hindering him for the rest of the season. He played in all 13 games, including a 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, but was sporadically held out of reps in practices after the injury.
Although the wound has finally healed, Wells still wears a sleeve all the way up his leg as a precaution, covering up a jagged scar.
For the "U" defense to function at its highest possible rate, Wells needs to stay healthy throughout the season, and positioning him at corner ups the possibility of that happening.
No longer concerned about his injury, Wells used the offseason to add weight in order to maintain his identity as a physical DB. Originally listed at 180-pounds as a freshman, Wells' weight has jumped up to 202-pounds, a five pound increase from where he was at in December.
"He's got the flexibility to be a big corner, which you need in the Big 10," Kill said.
Countering Wells in the other starting cornerback slot will likely be either Jeremy Baltazar or Martez Shabazz. The two seniors served in backup roles last season after being recruited out of junior colleges.
Baltazar has had the obvious edge in the early goings of spring practice, taking the majority of his reps with the first team. Baltazar picked 16 tackles in 2012, logging snaps in all 13 games.
Shabazz's debut season with the Gophers was slowed two games in by a dislocated toe. He did not record a tackle in the final three games of the regular season, but finished with his best outing in the bowl game, where he broke up two passes to go with one tackle
Moved from wide receiver to cornerback this spring, junior Marcus Jones has been limited due to a late-season knee injury, but is still practicing with his new group. Junior Briean Boddy and sophomore Eric Murray are also realistic options, fitting nicely into reserve spots.
With Wells at cornerback this is Vereen's chance to retake a consistent starting role, Vereen is the most experienced member of the secondary, having appeared in 34 of 37 games in his first three seasons with 23 starts. In his first season at safety, he started seven games in 2011, but was still part of the Gophers' main three-man rotation with Wells and now-junior Cedric Thompson.
Five months out, Thompson and Vereen are the favorites to start the Gophers' season opener against UNLV. But with the way Claeys has preferred to bring guys in and out in the secondary, there will be room for one or two players to step into an elevated position.
Travis has developed a label of "One to Watch," as he has emerged with a surprisingly strong start to the spring. Getting a high number of reps alongside Thompson, Wells, Baltazar and Vereen, Travis has received several mentions from Kill in post-practice interviews.
There are still questions about long-term stability of the "U" secondary and whether it can match or even better its production from a year ago. But the unit remains the sturdiest portion of the defense. With the defensive line showing progress, the Gophers now need their linebacker corps, which is without five players from last season, to undergo the same transformation as the secondary.
Other notes/observations from spring practice
• The staring spot at center is Ohio State transfer Brian Bobek's to lose. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover alluded to as much when discussing the increased competition occurring across the O-line.
"That carrot is right there on the tip of his nose," Limegrover said. "All he has to do is reach out and grab that thing ... I have to get a sense of urgency with him that 'Hey, you go out there and take care of business and I'll figure out what to do with the other four spots.'
Bobek sat out his sophomore season after transferring in June, but was able to practice with the team throughout the year.
Versatile redshirt sophomore Jon Christenson has also been taking snaps at center, the position he made three of his six starts at last season. Christenson surged into the starting lineup eight games into the year, and is geared to stay there. If Bobek holds on to his center spot, Christenson will likely move to either left or right guard.
"I don't think Jon is going to be relinquishing a starting spot anytime soon," Limegrover said.
• Wide Jamel Harbison, seven months after tearing his ACL in the Gophers' first game at UNLV, has been able to more involved in practice than first expected. The redshirt freshman probably won't be cleared for full contact until fall camp opens, but he is still able to take a multitude of reps with the main offense. With a small wrap on his knee, Harbison's speed and mobility seems to be coming back at a pleasing rate.