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Updated: July 21st, 2011 2:00pm
Wolfson: New coordinator Tracy Claeys has lofty goals for Gophers 'D'

Wolfson: New coordinator Tracy Claeys has lofty goals for Gophers 'D'

by Doogie

In the Gophers' defensive meeting room at the Gibson-Nagurski football complex, the coaches have a giant white board with the 2011 schedule on it.

Under each team, there's a length set of defensive goals on a per-game basis. Among them: hold the opponent to 17 points or less, limit the ball-carriers to 3.2 yards per carry or less, create three or more takeaways and win 65% of third downs.

On first and further examinations, they all seem unrealistic after considering what the defense did last year:

• The Gophers ranked 98th (out of 120) in points allowed in 2010, allowing an average of 33 points per game.

• They finished dead last in all of college football (Division I Bowl Subdivision teams) last year with nine sacks.

• They allowed 392.2 yards per game.

• Most alarming: South Dakota, an Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA) team, notched 41 points and 444 yards in a 41-38 win at TCF Bank Stadium.

After spending 45 minutes with defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys on a June morning, though, he's a convincer.

Claeys' recent and distant history says he should be.

Along with defensive-minded head coach Jerry Kill, Claeys produced solid defenses at FCS school Southern Illinois and Division II Saginaw Valley State. Then, in the last three years at D-I FBS Northern Illinois, Claeys' defenses finished No. 1 each time in the Mid-American Conference. In 2010, his defense finished 14th nationally, allowing an average of just under 19 points per game.

No doubt, it'll take a year or two for Claeys to get the necessary bodies. But here's one easy, albeit obvious prediction: this year's defense will significantly trump what we saw last year.

Claeys recently sat down for an extensive interview. Here's the complete transcript:

What do you now know about your defense that you didn't prior to your 15 spring practices?

TC: I think there's a willingness to compete, to work hard, but until we get into the season, I don't know if we can answer a lot of the questions we have. The stress of spring ball and the conditions are completely different in the fall. It's a lot more hours, and the class, and you have a game day at the end that you have to perform well and be held up to those standards. I do think after going through spring that the kids want to be successful. Now, it's going to come down to if they are willing to put in some work. Now, it's going to come down to if they are willing to put in the extra time that it will take in the fall -- from a particular film study on their own, etc. We only get the 20 hours still. That doesn't change. You know there's a ballgame, and ultimately, that is what determines how successful you are. And the more time you have to put in for the game, you still have to go to class, go to tutors, so time management you really have to learn in the fall and you have to have a set of priorities. I'm not saying you wouldn't play well for two or three games, but you wouldn't play well for a whole season. It's a huge commitment -- a lot bigger commitment than spring ball is.

There hasn't been a whole lot of competent defense over the last 25, 30 years. Are you confident you can play competent defense now?

TC: I'm where I'm at because I believe whatever happened in the past has nothing to do with what happens now. You just got to show up and put in the work and I think good things happen to people who work hard. I think we can play good defense. Now, are kids willing to go through that process every week and prepare themselves the same and look at every opponent the same and say, 'It's not who we play, but how we play each week?' If we live up to those standards, we have a chance. If the kids have the will, and they want to do that part of it ... like I said, there's no challenges during the spring, and so the first time things go bad, we're going to find out who's going to stick together and who's not. I think we have a chance to just keep building, but the past has nothing to do with it. Like I told Coach (Kill), if I did (think the Gophers couldn't play good defense), I would've never come with him. There's been 10 D-coordinators here in the last 20 years. That's not really good job stability on my part, and so those things you got to let it go. Not to say you can't learn from the past and some things that have went on, but that's not going to have anything to do with if we play good on defense or don't. The past 20 years is not going to affect that.

Nine sacks on defense last year. That bugs you, doesn't it?

TC: It bothers me. That's just something whether it's the Big Ten or Conference USA, it doesn't matter. The quarterback has to make decisions under pressure and not sit back there and do what he wants to do or let a coach signal in from the sideline of what he wants to throw. Every secondary coverage, there's a weakness to it, and the way you cover it up is by getting to the quarterback. Make the ball come out quicker; the quicker the ball comes out, the more people can chase and run. You can watch game after game whether on Saturday or Sunday, it doesn't matter. Bad things happen when the quarterback can hold onto the football. I've been very blunt with the kids -- that's a situation that has to be corrected, and without blitzing 25 times a game. You know you have to be able to put pressure on the QB and get him get the ball out. I told someone the other day, 'If you look up and halfway through the season we only have nine sacks, we're going to struggle. We're not getting things accomplished we need to get accomplished.

Do you have right ammo? Do you have the bodies needed to get the quarterback?

TC: I think we've got some kids that are athletic and my own personal belief is stopping the run, a lot of it is effort and pad level and things like that. With pass rush, there's a lot of technique involved in that -- if the kids will listen and they learn the techniques and use their hands and keep their feet running. That's one thing that drives me crazy: you have no chance if you don't keep your feet running. So, we will see. I think we have the athleticism to create some pressure there. I really do. It's how well they learn the techniques and if they use them on game days. You're not always better than the person you line up and play against. But you can't use that as an excuse. You got to find a way to win. One way to do that is effort. Two is to play with great technique. So, those are things that we are going to concentrate on. The last thing I want to hear from a D-lineman or anyone up front is boy they were holding. That doesn't exist anymore. You got to find a way to defeat those guys. I do think we have some kids that have athletic ability to get it done, but we will see what happens on game day.

Who are your starting defensive ends right now?

TC: I don't know. ... I really don't know. Spring is so different than the fall. It still comes down to the fact that we're going to play the kids who prepare themselves to be successful that week. We may have different starters each weak until we get into, 'Hey, this kid is putting in the time. He's doing what he's supposed to.' So, I don't know. It will be interesting to see. We got a little banged up, and we were inconsistent (in the spring). ... I know D.L.(Wilhite) and Kendall (Gregory-McGhee) had a good spring. Anthony Jacobs did some good things. Leston Simpson is a kid who had some skills, but he is a kid who needs to learn how to play with some technique rather than rough -- really, everybody all the time. I think we can put a group out there that can get some things done. My concern is more the depth as we went into spring. I like to play a lot of guys up front. I think that has to do with how many sacks we get. You can play fresher guys longer all year. But if you put a D-lineman there and he has to play 80 snaps every weekend, he's going to wear down over 12 weekends. So, that depth part will be important to see develop from the young kids. Do I think it will be a problem picking a starting group? I don't think so. Once we get to fall camp, we're going to reward, if you prepare yourself, you're going to play in that Saturday night game. Whether you started or not, it's almost like having two starting groups. Sometimes if enough kids are willing to pay the price and get themselves ready to play, we're going to roll them in there and the ones who don't want to pay the price and prepare themselves will have a hard time playing.

Is that different though? this might be apples and oranges, but I saw a segment on ESPN. Urban Meyer was interviewing Mack Brown -- I get it, that staff has been in place at least a lot of that staff in Austin for a while -- but Mack was talking about this time of the summer, after spring practice, he knows exactly who his starters are. He'll give his true freshmen a chance to compete for playing time come August, but really, by the time August practice starts, he knows who his first team is. Is it different, though, because you just got here?

TC: I would say that has something to do with it. There's no question, because we have seen them 15 days. The guys (Brown) is going to line up and play with have been there for two or three years and he knows what he is going to get every year. We haven't been through any adverse conditions... It's easy when things are going good, it really is. It's easy to get up and come to work in the morning, no matter what you do. We haven't had the chance to see some of the true identities of some of the kids. If we've been here two years and had some of the kids for a couple years, it'd be safer to say. I also say this: if we say a kid's a starter and a freshman comes in that's better, then the kid we're going to play is the one that gives us a chance to win. When you get to this level, we can all say all the right things -- 'Boy, have good graduation rates,' and dah dah dah, and that's important to us, but the decision on if we get our paycheck or not is based on wins and losses. That's all there is to it. So, it's our job to put the best player out there, regardless of what they have done in the past.

Ra'Shede Hageman physically looks the part, but is he on board mentally?

TC: Ra'Shede has a consistency thing. It's all about pad level. He has the tools. He has the want to do it. So, hopefully the consistency will come. To be fair, he just got moved inside. You see a lot of different blocks on the inside than on the outside, so the positions aren't the same. Really, the last week of spring ball, I was really pleased. He really showed some progress the last week of spring ball. He really showed some consistency, being a day-in and day-out performer. Ra'Shede's thing will be, can he do that process every week, to get ready to play on a consistent basis? He's got all the tools to be able to play, not only on Saturday, but on Sunday. And he's a young yet, and with the change -- not only is he going through a new system, but he's also young, and so that makes it more difficult for the younger guys who haven't played a bunch.

You have four very capable linebackers. Could we see at one point all four on the field, or is it either Gary Tinsley and Brendan Beal with Mike Rallis on one side, Keanon Cooper on the other side? Or am I off-base?

TC: No, no. You're not off-base. We were a 4-3, so for the most part, we will be three backers, but everybody has specialty packages. That's something we didn't get to in the spring. I don't like to do specialty packages in the spring -- the freshmen aren't here; you don't have your whole team. You can take a young kid and, 'Yeah, he's not ready to play every down,' but he may have the skills to where he is ready to play on third down or a big D-lineman may help out in run situations, and so in the fall we will work on specialty situations. The thing I think we have done a good job as a staff of is, in those specialty situations, getting the best 11 players on the field for any given situation. And so that's how we'll put things together. So, maybe it's four linebackers, maybe it's five. I don't know what that'll be. The coverages don't change a lot, but the people you put in to do those things gives you a better chance. So, on third-and- long, we're going to try and put as much speed on the field as we can. Is that going to be six DBs or five linebackers? For certain situations, nothing's out. We've played seven DBs before versus a team that was no running threat. Those are things we spend time on this summer -- breaking down our opponents; getting an idea of what we will think we need. Then, in fall camp, when you have the true freshmen, everybody, you have them go through (and figure it out). I don't like to do the specialty group if you have no room for injury, because you can practice it all week, and if one kid gets hurt, you have to throw it all out. To me, that's a waste of practice time. So, when you do the specialty groups, it's nice if you have that one kid who can do two or three things in case you get an injury so you don't just have to throw it out after one injury. So, there's a chance you can see a bunch of linebackers on the field at one time. There's a chance you could see one linebacker on the field at one time. But in our base, we're 4-3.

Is Tinsley ahead of Beal right now?

TC: Just like on all the starters, there's a thousand ways to ask that question. I don't know to this point. I really don't. I've done a couple other interviews, and I could tell on the other end they would get frustrated with me, because I won't commit to anybody right now. There's a group of them there. Between Beal and Tinsley and Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper, they're all there. Who's going to be the best team player when things are on the line? Who's going to fit into things and be the most consistent? That's all going to determine what's going to happen, honestly. I hope there's more than four. (The coaching staff) used to always say that we needed nine (linebackers) at Northern (Illinois). I don't know if we can get to nine, but I hope we could get to seven or eight guys between special teams and accepting their role and getting good at things. ... We can rotate guys in, in the situations they're best at. It's going to help us be successful. So, I just think we've got to go through the first few weeks of fall camp before we'll know exactly where everyone plugs in.

Do you feel comfortable with your guys in the defensive backfield? Seems like Troy Stoudermire is set. Kim Royston is set. James Manuel versus Christyn Lewis might be a little bit of a battle, right? I guess the other corner spot is a little bit of a battle as well?

TC: They're not all set. It's the same thing. Troy and Kim had a good spring. Shady (Salamon) is someone who had a good spring that no one took a notice to, but he had a good spring. I don't want to throw anybody out right now, because they've all had good days, but they all can be more consistent. Troy has proven what he can do, and even Troy can tell you -- we've told him, 'Are you going to do the process each week to prepare to be successful?' Whoever does that is the one that is going to play on Saturday. It's a simple rule, but sometimes it's hard to follow. I just don't know how good you'll ever be on defense when you have kids who feel there's an entitlement for them to play. That's what we are trying to eliminate. We want kids who love the game and are willing to prepare each week, so they deserve to play each week, rather than say, 'Hey, I deserve to play because of who I am.'

So, entitlement existed?

TC: Entitlement has existed in every job we have ever taken over. The best example I can give is every place we have gone to, there have been kids who for the staff previously didn't play, and they ended up playing for us. There's some that played quite a bit (previously) and didn't play for us. So, it's all about who's going to buy in and do their role. The offense now wants to spread the defense and try and trick you into things. So, a lot of playing defense is just doing your job. Get lined up, communicate, and do your job. The amount of execution of offenses is nothing like what it used to be. Now, it's about tricking people and getting big plays. In that regard, as a defensive player, you have to be more disciplined than you used to have to be. If you just get lined up and do your job each snap, I think you have a chance to be good. Pat Riley is always talking about once you become successful, you have this disease. Hell, everyone wants to make plays and be recognized as a superstar. But those are one of the things with coaching you have to be able to control in order to be good. So, the entitlement issue has been a part of any job we have taken over. But it's something the kids have been willing to correct. They understand. Was it hard for a while? Sure it was. But I think we do a good job of communication with them: 'Here's why you didn't get that many reps today. Whether you like it or not, this is how we feel about it.' I think we have a chance to play fairly well, because kids have been willing to change and do things we have asked them to do. I don't worry about finding 11 who will line up and play. It's all a depth thing. How much depth can we get? How many kids can do it? That will determine how successful we are on defense.

Take me through you defensive goals next season.

TC: Hold the team to 17 points or less. I just feel the way offenses are, I feel that is a realistic goal. What's the job description that week? If we are struggling as an offense as the game goes on, and we need to hold them to 10 or less to win, then that's the job description. But iI think week-in and week-out, if you can hold a team to 17 or less, you get to the fourth quarter. You're going to have an opportunity to win that game. The first (goal) is (to) win. Kids need to understand that is the most important goal. You may not play well for three quarters and the offense is having a great day and they score and you get a lead -- don't worry about everything that has gone wrong in the last three quarters. Let's get it done this quarter and win. It's always easier to correct problems when you win than when you lose. Winning is number one. Then, 17 points or less. Stopping teams at 3.2 yards per carry or less. That's just a number when you look at who led the country or been in the top 20 each year.

That's an unrealistic one, though.

TC: It probably depends on who you play. In the Big Tenl that will be tough, because there seem to be more running teams. Versus the passing teams, it usually is not that difficult. But if you're holding teams somewhere around 3 yards a carry, you're doing OK against the run.

Those are pretty lofty goals going up and down the list (in the defensive meeting room). Three or more takeaways, winning 65% of third downs?

TC: We have been consistent on defense and that's why. You are not going to hit every one of them every game. But if you hit four to six, you've got a chance.

Is that realistic though?

TC: Oh, yeah! All those goals up there -- hell, if you ask me, it still comes down to, how well did you do on third down and did you give up big plays? If you do not give up big plays and you play well on third down, you're going to make teams execute to beat you. So, those are the two big ones. So, if we don't give up more than one big play and play well on third down, I think we got a chance to keep the score down. The other (game-by-game defensive goals) are more for us to make an emphasis on certain things. You see the red-zone goals. My thing: if a team gets down to the red zone seven times and they kick a field goal all seven times, that's 21 points. Then, you still have a chance to win the football game, (as) opposed to if they score touchdowns every time, now you're up to 49 or 50 points, and you're out. So, every team is going to execute and make a few plays, but there's no point why that ball has to pass that goal-line every single time. ... Those goals haven't really changed in the last 10 years, and I think they're all pretty simple goals that can be evaluated right after the game. So, you can know where you broke down and where you need to get better.

Darren "Doogie" Wolfson is the jack-of-all-trades sports guy for 5 Eyewitness News and a contributor to
Email Darren | @darrenwolfson