(Photo credit: Brace Hemmelgarn Photography)
Although 2011 starters Troy Stoudermire (pictured above) and Brock Vereen return to the Gophers’ defensive backfield, those cornerbacks are the only players offering much experience in what should be a completely re-tooled defensive secondary this season. Here’s a look at which newcomers are poised to make an impact for the Golden Gophers.
During an early season game against New Mexico State last season, BTN announcer Wayne Larrivee described the bulk of the Gophers defensive backfield: “Troy Stoudermire was playing receiver (last year), Kim Royston hasn’t played football in two years and Shady Salamon was a running back.”
Jokes aside, the description was completely accurate.
Falling in line with that theme, it wasn’t pretty much of the season, especially after Stoudermire, the No. 1 cornerback, was lost for most of the year with a wrist injury. A thin defensive secondary quickly showed its lack of depth.
Early in the year, with Stoudermire still playing, Robert Woods had a USC record 17 catches for 177 yards and three touchdowns as the Gophers tried to give him a soft cushion to prevent the deep pass. Matt Barkley passed for 304 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, completing 76 percent of his passes.
Barkley ended up one of the year’s most celebrated quarterbacks, but the gaudy stats weren’t limited to those often on ESPN.
North Dakota State quarterback Brock Jensen completed 76 percent of his passes against the Gophers. He ended the season with a completion percentage — against a schedule consisting of almost all small school Division I teams — of 67 percent. For comparison, Jensen completed only 57 percent of his passes against Southern Illinois two games later. On third downs against the Gophers, NDSU converted for a first 67 percent of the time.
New Mexico State quarterback Andrew Manley threw two interceptions, but he also threw for three touchdowns. In the first half alone, he went 14-17, with 226 yards and three touchdowns.
In Big Ten play, Russell Wilson had one incompletion in 17 attempts, along with four touchdowns, while Michigan’s Denard Robinson padded his stats against the Gophers, too. Robinson completed 79 percent of his passes.
In 2011, the Gopher defense ranked:
• 116th out of 120 Division I teams in completion percentage; taken another way, Minnesota was the fifth easiest team to complete a pass on in all of Division I;
• 116th in interceptions with four (two of which came in the loss to New Mexico State);
• 107th out of 120 in terms of passing rating, allowing opposing quarterbacks to compile an average efficiency rating of 148.81.
To put that in perspective, future NFL first-overall pick Andrew Luck had a passer rating of 169.68 in 2011. Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III had a rating of 189.47. The Gopher defense made every quarterback they played, on average, turn into the equivalent of Arkansas’s Tyler Wilson, or the 23rd best QB in the country based on the flawed/non-perfect passer efficiency rating.
I could keep adding to this list, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll move on. The point has been made: The Gophers’ defense was awful at times last year, sometimes with a non-existent pash rush, other times with blown coverage. The defensive woes weren’t squarely due to the defensive backs, but they weren’t blameless either. At cornerback the Gophers were thin due to injuries. At safety they had either free safeties who couldn’t cover or converted cornerbacks who gave up too much size in run coverage.
The result left a revolving door of players thrown into the mix. Again, Stoudermire’s injury made those weaknesses even more glaring.
By the end of the year, former walk-on cornerback Chase Haviland – all five feet, nine inches and 179 pounds of him – was starting at free safety in place of Salamon. Senior Kyle Henderson was starting at one corner and Brock Vereen, a sophomore at the time, was playing the other cornerback spot. Royston held down strong safety.
Current depth: Royston, Henderson, Salamon and Haviland have all graduated. (Haviland had two more years of eligibility, but left school upon graduation). Christyn Lewis, another cornerback thrown into the safety position, graduated as well, leaving only Cedric Thompson and Derrick Wells the only hold-overs listed at safety on the season’s final depth chart.
Going into this year, Stoudermire returns with an extra year of eligibility. Vereen returns, too. The junior displayed solid one-on-one tackling and cover skills as the season continued, even though he had trouble giving up big plays (specifically the USC, North Dakota State and New Mexico State games).
Even with both starting cornerbacks returning, that left enormous holes to fill through recruiting, which the Gophers responded to by signing six incoming freshmen and junior college transfers at defensive back.
Many of them should expect to play this fall, as defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said in many of the signing day videos produced by the university.
“Safety, those kids, we’ve told them, put the pressure on them, that we’re gonna expect snaps out of them right away,” Claeys said.
During Jerry Kill’s WCCO Sports Huddle on Feb. 5, Claeys again mentioned the defensive backs, saying that the depth from this year’s junior college recruits will allow the Gophers to redshirt some of the true freshmen.
New recruits: Out of the six scholarship players coming to campus that will play defensive back, Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis immediately project as safeties, with Johnson looking to play as a true freshman.
“He’s gonna be expected to play, right away, whether that’s as a starter or a back up,” Claeys said of Johnson. “He’s gonna get the opportunity to play in the fall.”
Johnson stands 6-foot even, weighing 190 pounds, while Travis stands 6-foot-2, and weighs 205 pounds.
Another newcomer who should play this year is junior college transfer Jeremy Baltazar. Baltazar has two years of eligibility remaining and has already enrolled at the “U”, giving him a leg up in working with strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein, meeting his teammates and adjusting to campus.
Baltazar played two years at Blinn College, where Cam Newton played before transferring to Auburn, so he should be more prepared to transition to the Gophers this year than the true freshmen. He played more cornerback than safety, so Baltazar would also face the learning curve of adjusting to a a new position if he was moved.
Baltazar’s size, 6-foot, 190 pounds, makes him a candidate to shift to safety if needed, although Claeys said on the Sports Huddle that Baltazar will likely play cornerback, moving sophomore Derrick Wells to safety.
Playing Baltazar at cornerback allows Derrick Wells to play safety, Claeys said Wells has gotten bigger and stronger since last year.
Shabazz is thin at a listed 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, but he can reportedly hit very well despite having such a slight frame. Boddy projects as a solid, all-around cornerback, possibly someone to step in for Stoudermire once he graduates.
Eric Murray is a freshman recruit out of Wisconsin who will be moving to defense after primarily playing offense in high school. To maximize his talent and eligibility, it would probably be best to redshirt him. Claeys said he’s awfully competitive, which bodes well for him moving forward. The Gophers are going to need talented players, but also overachievers who can maximize their athletic talent in order to start climbing the ladder of the Big Ten.
Outcome: Troy Stoudermire walks into camp as the No. 1 cornerback. Vereen returns to the other side, but look for that spot to be hotly contested. Coach Jerry Kill often talks about competition making the team better and this position couldn’t fit that ethos much better. There will be position contests all spring in the cornerback and safety spots.
So far, it seems that the staff is enthused with Shabazz and Baltazar and they should both contend, if not lock up, the nickel and dime spots.
It’s somewhat silly to project which players might emerge at this point in the year, especially when the coaches have been adamant that the players will compete for spots this spring, but at safety, look for a competition between Wells, Johnson, and Travis.
With the few snaps that the safeties currently on the roster had last year, I’d think that Coach Jerry Kill and Co. are inclined to give these new guys every chance they can to play immediately. For example, James Manuel is entering his junior year, but only appeared briefly last season. Throwing two true freshmen into the mix at safety isn’t exactly an ideal situation, but Johnson and Travis might be the best two, true safeties on the team. With the way that Kill was willing to play Marcus Jones immediately last year, it seems highly credible he would be more willing to give these players a shot over those from the Brewster era.
That leaves senior cornerback Michael Carter, a talented player whose inconsistent on-field production hasn’t matched his potential. Last year, I wrote about Carter, wondering if he would contribute as a junior or drift away in the depth chart abyss. It was the latter; who knows if he has any chances left. Could he move to safety? The change would hide his poor man coverage skills, but take advantage of his strong tackling, but if a change was that simple, why wouldn’t the Gophers have tried Carter at safety last year near the end of the season? It will be telling to see what position grouping Carter practices with this spring.
If anything though, these six new defensive backs give the Gophers some solid depth, without having to move players from running back or wide receiver. Rather than having to juggle undersized players out of position, the Gophers in 2011 should have an almost completely new, if not slightly improved, defensive secondary.
Kill didn’t sign this many junior college guys, especially those with only two years of eligibility left, to sit on the sideline and watch.