Sandell's notebook: Projecting Gophers' first- and second-team defense
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Jerry Kill's Minnesota Gophers are a week into fall as they prep for their follow-up to last season's eight-win campaign.
The following are several notes observations from the first week of practices.
• Even with the loss of NFL draft picks Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, the Gopher defense still looks geared to be a surprisingly formidable force in the Big Ten. And with an offense that has been questionable , the Gophers will surely need another big year from their defense (fourth in Big Ten last season in scoring defense).
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who is always measured with his praise, deemed the unit the "most competitive group of kids we've had." It has looked that way so far in camp, with an intensity and fluidity to practices that is a slight step up from a year ago and was missing altogether when Kill first took over in 2011.
These are all positive early signs given the knowledge that the defense will be strongly tested in the season ahead with a gauntlet of a conference schedule awaiting them.
• The Gophers won't set a full depth chart until later in camp, but Claeys said he currently has a firm idea of 13 or 14 players who will be in the rotation on defense. From there, Claeys is still trying to address questions with a few substitution packages, especially in the nickel formation, and is working to figure out where some of the incoming freshmen and younger guys may fit in.
• Here's an idea of the early make-up of the first- and second-team defenses so far:
Defensive line: DE Theiren Cockran/Alex Keith, DT Scott Ekpe/Demaris Peppers/Steven Richardson, DT Cameron Botticelli/Yoshoub Timms, DE Michael Amaefula/Hendrick Ekpe
Linebackers: OLB De'Vondre Campbell/Ray Dixon, MLB Damien Wilson/Nick Rallis, OLB Jack Lynn/De'Niro Laster
Secondary: CB Derrick Wells/Briean Boddy-Calhoun, S Cedric Thompson/Antonio Johnson, S Damarius Travis/Grayson Levine, CB Eric Murray/Jalen Myrick
• Several freshmen were thrown in with the first-team defense this week to see how they would respond. The coaching staff has begun making freshmen evaluations on both sides of the ball, identifying the players they plan to redshirt and the ones who could see playing time this season.
• Defensive tackle Steven Richardson has been among the early standouts from this year's freshmen class. When put in against the first-team offense, the 291-pound, 18-year-old Richardson held his own, getting to quarterback Mitch Leidner twice during a brief scrimmage.
Generously listed at 6-feet, the compact Richardson boasts impressive speed and agility. Kill went as far as to compare him to former Pittsburgh tackle Aaron Donald, who was selected at No. 13 in the 2014 NFL draft by St. Louis.
"He's built for leverage, and he's strong. I mean strong, strong. As you can see he can run," Kill said.
Richardson would be a solid choice when making a short list of freshmen likely to get first-year playing time.
• While the Gophers are already well-stocked in the secondary, freshman DB Craig James is making a strong case to play right away. Defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel said he thinks there is a role James could fill in his first year, but taking a redshirt could also serve as a longterm benefit. James could end up fitting a role on special teams.
"Craig James is a hell of a player," Kill said. "I can tell you that right now. He's a difference maker, because of all the things he can do kicking game-wise. Like anything, I play the best players and he's playing at a high level as a young kid right now."
• Minnesota's offensive line bolstered a David Cobb-led run game in 2013 that totaled 2,538 yards (fourth-most in Big Ten), but the line had major shortcomings in pass-blocking. For now, the Gophers' pass protection remains a key question mark on offense.
"We're not where we need to be," Limegrover said. "We have a ton of work to do, but they're out there right now working to improve. We put a lot of emphasis on it. It'll be where we need it to be when we start the season."
• Early in the offseason junior right tackle Josh Campion was told by the coaching staff to be ready for the possibility of playing a bit at guard this season. Campion, who has started 26 straight games at right tackle, periodically trained at guard during the summer. He is staying put at tackle for now, but Limegrover has left the door open to potential changes as camp and the season progresses.
• A year ago, there was legitimate question about whether Brian Bobek would ever be able to play football again. Now, recovered from a serious viral infection that kept him sidelined all of last year, Bobek has powered his way into a competition at center with returning starter Tommy Olson.
"With what Brian has gone through, you need to high-five him everyday when you see him in meetings, because he's gone the hard road ... He's been through so much. He just wants to find a way to play and that's driving him."
The former Ohio State transfer, labeled by some as one of the strongest players on the team, continues to take reps with the second unit. As Limegrover noted, Bobek at times appears to be still "knocking the rust off" and is searching for consistency. But he is making it more of position battle at center than it first appeared to be.
• A quick glimpse at the perceived offensive line two-deep after one week of practice:
LT Ben Lauer/Joe Bjorklund or Marek Lenkiewicz, LG Zac Epping/Isaac Hayes, C Tommy Olson/Brian Bobek, RG Foster Bush/Jon Christenson or Luke McAvoy, RT Josh Campion/Jonah Pirsig
• Kill considers the competition at kicker wide open. Both Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte have had their moments in practice. Harte has solid accuracy when kicking from 40 yards out or closer, while Santoso has powerful leg and can hit from 50 yards with relative ease. Santoso may have the early edge, but both seem likely to factor into the kicking game.