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Updated: July 19th, 2013 2:23am
Tracy Claeys 'very pleased' with state of 'U' defense entering camp

Tracy Claeys 'very pleased' with state of 'U' defense entering camp

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- When discussing and breaking down the state of his defense, Minnesota Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys doesn't hold to the typical coach-speak and weathered hyperbole.

If something is off-kilter or he is unhappy about his group's progress, Claeys, in his reserved, but straightforward demeanor, won't shy away from pointing it out.

So one had to take notice when Claeys sat in the coaches' meeting room at Gophers' football facilities, with the start of fall camp less than two weeks away, expressing a discernible confidence and comfort in the current make-up of his defense.

Now in the third year of coach Jerry Kill's attempt to overhaul the Gophers football program, Claeys seems to be relatively ease about his defense's prospects going into preseason camp for the first time in the Kill era.

"I feel more comfortable because we have more competition," Claeys said. "If somebody doesn't play well, hey, next man up is going to get the opportunity. In our first two years we haven't always been in that situation ... I'm very pleased with where we're at."

All of this has to be taken in context. The defense Kill's staff inherited was one of the worst Big Ten -- a statement that could be said about the team as a whole. Year One was a disaster, but the improvement made on defense a year later was the biggest on-field leap forward made by the Gophers in a season in which they ended a two-year postseason hiatus.

Strengthened by a suddenly formidable secondary, the Gophers rose to fifth in the Big Ten in total defense and fourth against the pass. However, glaring problems at linebacker -- fitting into gaps, spacing issues, etc. -- inconsistencies at safety and a defensive line that was still slowly coming together contributed to ongoing struggles against the run.

Although not close to being considered among the Big Ten's upper-tier, the "U" defense is now as close to respectable as any portion of the Gophers' current team. But with an offense that has yet to prove that it can score with any level of consistency, the defense will face an extra burden of pressure to pick up the slack, as they did for much of last season.

The Gophers graduated five starters, which will test the depth that they have been trying to cultivate for the last two seasons. This will be seen most prominently at cornerback -- both Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter have to be replaced - and at linebacker, still the weakest area of the defense.

What excites Claeys is that, unlike the past two seasons, the Gophers appear primed to fill those holes with limited problems. The "U" D-line is the defense's most stable unit, having a likely starting unit, anchored by standout tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, that features three players with two or more years of experience -- a commodity that was a rarity in the initial stages of Kill's regime.

"The one thing I felt really good about coming out of spring ball was the D-line," Claeys said.

"I think we are the best we've been on the defensive line. I think we have some depth there. Those guys still set the tone of the game. I think we'll be in a position to do that. I think with the depth we'll be able to stay healthy through the year and do that."

A similar argument could be made for the secondary.

Junior Derrick Wells' move from safety back to cornerback has been made permanent. That shift not only gives the Gophers an experienced, big-bodied presence at corner, but it helps open the rest secondary up to increased depth, with senior Brock Vereen and junior Cedric Thompson able to step to the forefront at safety.

The competition for the second starting cornerback spot opposite Wells should be the most heated defensive position battle in training camp. Jeremy Baltazar, Briean Boddy, Martez Shabazz and Eric Murray are all legitimate contenders, giving the Gophers a needed buffer if injuries become an issue.

Murray and Boddy appeared to have the advantage at the end of spring ball on Baltazar and Shabazz, who both missed time with injuries. But the situation at corner is expected to remain fluid, at least in the early goings of camp.

"I will sleep better with (Derrick) out there, knowing that we've got the depth," Claeys said.

"If we don't move Derrick to corner, after next season we're really thin again at (CB). So part of moving him too was that we're going to create some consistency there in the next two years, which I think is important to do in the secondary. I feel as comfortable as I've felt since I've been here."

How the Gophers adapt at linebacker will be a key storyline entering the season. Beyond senior Aaron Hill, the group is banking largely on potential over proven ability. As a result of being heavy on scholarship upperclassmen in the last two seasons, the linebacker corps is behind the two other sections of the defense. But the expectation from the coaching staff is that the unit, which will mix in five newcomers, can have the rise in production that the secondary experienced in 2012.

Kill mentioned on and off in his first season at the helm that the defense would be the first part of team that noteworthy improvements would be made in. So far that has been the case, and should continue on that path. Finishing around fifth in the conference again in total defense is realistic. Until the Gophers start making more strides on offense, and keep the defense off the field longer, the ceiling for Claeys' group will be hindered.

Going through the notebook

• Defensive tackle Roland Johnson, who suffered a torn ACL in late-November, is on track to be cleared to play at the start of fall camp. Johnson's progress will be closely monitored as he is eased back into the D-line rotation.

After transferring in last season from junior college, Johnson was just beginning to emerge as a strong option along the line -- 21 tackles (five for losses) and two sacks -- when he was injured. Once fully healthy, he is expected to regain his spot in the two-deep behind Cameron Botticelli.

Depending on how training camp goes, the Gophers may limit Johnson during the nonconference schedule to ensure he is ready when Big Ten play begins.

• Redshirt sophomore linebacker Peter Westerhaus remains on the Gophers' roster, although his college football career is currently an afterthought in the wake of an ongoing health battle. Westerhaus is suffering from colitis -- an infection of the large intestine -- and has had tremendous difficulty keeping on weight. The former 2010 Minnesota Mr. Football has not played since joining the Gophers in 2011.

• The Gophers' are entering a big recruiting weekend, with a number of the team's top recruits -- both current commits and targets -- in town for a skills camp on Friday and several other recruiting events. Center Connor Mayes, who committed in June, linebackers Nick Holman and Niles Sykes, in-state recruits Andrew Stelter and Frank Ragnow, and key 2014 commit Jeff Jones are among those expected to be on campus.

If you are keen on news from the "U" recruiting trail, this is the weekend to stay in tune.

• Seniors Brock Vereen, Ra'Shede Hageman and junior running back Donnell Kirkwood are expected to serve as the Gophers' player representatives at Big Ten football media days July 24-26.

• The Gophers are scheduled to open fall camp on August 1, with their season opener slated for Aug. 29 against UNLV.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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