What happened to Minnesota Golden Gophers cornerback Michael Carter in 2010? In the coming year, will he again lock down receivers on an island or will his troubles land him on one of his own?
(Image credit: Brace Hemmelgarn, Flickr)
At the first Minnesota Golden Gopher football practice this year, Michael Carter stood away from his teammates completing his own grueling and spartan workout, something that called to mind late-night ESPN re-runs of “The World’s Strongest Man” or the Russian training regimen Rocky Balboa employed in preparation for Ivan Drago. As his teammates went through coverages and drills, Carter lugged around a massive rope, fit for a Carnival cruise line anchor. The rope was attached to a sled, loaded with several weights; Carter’s job was to pull the rope towards him in one direction and then drag it back in the other direction on all fours.
Instead of competing for a starting spot and blanketing Da’Jon McKnight on “Carter Island” like a Dinkytown’s own Darrelle Revis, Carter was stranded alone, drawing comparisons instead to some sort of P90X From Hell workout, pushing and pulling the sled again and again across the side field.
“I don’t want any part of that,” running back Duane Bennett told Star-Tribune reporter Phil Miller, who himself noted on Twitter that just watching Carter made him tired.
Carter became the inaugural member of coach Jerry Kill’s “Minnesota Lopher” squad — a dog house of sorts for players who aren’t performing academically or have violated team rules. The shirt on his back stated, “I have let my teammates down.” In his short career, it wasn’t always like this.
Carter, the cousin of former Gopher and two-time All-American safety Tyrone Carter, came to the Twin Cities as a well-hyped, four-star defensive back prospect. As soon as his chin strap was snapped and his ankles were taped, he impressed. In his first game, Carter made three tackles, including a fumble-causing sack on a quarterback blitz that to a defensive touchdown, Minnesota’s lone six-point score of the game. Later on during his freshman season, he unseated senior Traye Simmons, who was a second team All-Big Ten cornerback the previous year and would also make an NFL roster the following year after college. Then, just as Carter seemed like a player the Gophers could pencil in at cornerback for the next three years, he was arrested Nov. 2 and charged with being under the influence of alcohol (he was 18-years-old) and obstructing the legal process (University Police said he resisted arrest).
From then, his career started to sail off-track like a tipped pass flailing to the turf.
Carter began 2010 as a starting cornerback, but lost his starting spot after two games. He played briefly against USC and Northern Illinois before breaking out against Northwestern with 11 tackles, nine solo, a forced fumble and an interception. The following week against Wisconsin, Carter sat out with a toe injury. He returned to split time the following three weeks, before ending 2010 on an apparent academic-related suspension.
What happened to Michael Carter? What caused his downward slide? Carter came to practice as a freshman and immediately contributed; he wasn’t overmatched by a bigger, faster game in college. He succeeded against older and larger player and then, for whatever reason, he regressed. Carter stands 5’11”, can run a 4.5 40-yard-dash and is obviously athletic. He can obviously play football, too. Part of his regression can be attributed to the toe injury and part of it (the arrest, the charge of drinking underage) can be tacked up to a 19-year-old acting like a 19-year-old.
As a young player, his skills seemed to degenerate the longer he spent on the Minnesota campus. Did the previous coaching staff get the most out of him? Looking at the stats below, it’s clear that co-defensive coordinators Kevin Cosgrove and Ronnie Lee didn’t best utilize the talents of the Gophers defense. For Cosgrove, it’s a reputation that follows him from his days with the Nebraska Cornhuskers, where fans still lament his four-year tenure as defensive coordinator under Bill Callahan. In 2007, the Cosgrove-led Blackshirts defense gave up 37.9 points per game, including tallies of 49, 40, 41 and 45 to USC, Ball State, Missouri, and Oklahoma State, respectively. Still, those four games leave out the two worst outcomes, 76 points to Kansas and 65 points to Colorado.
The 2010 Gophers defense finished fifth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per game (200.8 yards), but looking deeper, that ranking quickly tarnishes faster than the rings Zack Morris bought from Jem Diamond.
The defense finished near the bottom in almost every other defensive statistical category. With Nebraska’s team stats making a 12-team conference, Minnesota finished:
• ninth in points allowed (33 points per game);
• ninth in total yards allowed per game (392.2 yards);
• ninth in passing touchdowns allowed (21);
• 12th in rushing yards allowed (191.4 yards);
• 10th in completion percentage allowed (65.5 percent);
• 12th in yards per completion (13.2 yards).
Put into context, the Gophers gave up 2,297 rushing yards, or a total that placed offensively would have been good enough to become the 27th-best rushing attack in the nation. Since teams could seemingly run wherever they wanted to against the Gophers, they simply didn’t need to pass that often. When they did, they chalked up the most yards per attempt in the conference.
(Sidenote: Yes, the University of Akron recently hired Cosgrove to lead their defense. Of course, Cosgrove’s Akron bio lists him as improving the Gophers pass defense to 33rd in the country in 2010, up from 55th the previous year. Every coach has a biography that makes them seem like the second coming of Vince Lombardi. It’s easy to see why some of these athletic directors get sucked in. Instead of realizing that Cosgrove’s defenses deteriorated each year under his tutelage, they focus on that he went to the Cotton Bowl at Nebraska! In 2004, his defense ranked 11th in the nation against the run! He was a linebacker coach for three Rose Bowl-winning Wisconsin teams! They block out the fact that Cosgrove was part of the near-implosion of the Cornhuskers program or that he presided over a Gophers team that gave up 352 yards passing to BCS-level University of South Dakota. Pretty soon, these athletic directors come to the faulty conclusion that: Anytime you can hire a coach who’s defenses gave up 76 points to Kansas, 65 points to Colorado and more than 350 passing yards to what was previously known as a Division I-AA squad, you’ve got to do it.)
Not to belabor a point, but Carter wasn’t receiving the best coaching.
A dominant cornerback can change a defense. If he can truly shut down the opposing receiver in one-on-one coverage, it allows the defense to concentrate on other receivers, for the front seven to rush more aggressively. If the cornerback can step up in run coverage, it gives the defense an extra half second to rush the passer. If a cornerback is awful, offenses at the collegiate and professional levels are going to figure it out and throw against him. And throw against him. And then scheme how to possibly throw against him even more. A great cornerback can cause an offense to simply ignore that side of the field. Does Carter have that potential? Maybe, maybe not. Darren Wolfson of 1500ESPN Twin Cities has even suggested that Carter should transition to free safety, that his ball-hawking skills would be better suited there.
It’s a reach to expect Carter to take back a starting cornerback position and then become the type of cornerback that can shut down an entire half of the field. But Carter does have the potential to be a solid starter and contributor and it’s clear that he has a place on the football field.
Even this spring, when Carter started out exiled to the sidelines, it has been easy to see his potential. By day four of spring practice, when he shred the “Lopher” jersey and joined his teammates in the first day of practice with full pads, he again showed his promise. Carter reportedly destroyed running back/wide receiver Marcus Jones on a screen pass, apparently uncoiling the aggression that had been building during his rope-anchor-sled workout.
After the first practice in pads, Carter told the Minnesota Daily that the brief time away made him a better player, that the punishment made him take his mistakes into account.
“It betters you. It makes you a better man that way,” Carter said of the discipline, received for undisclosed reasons. “If I’m the example, cool. Let’s get it. Let’s go. Let’s practice.”
He has since emerged as a contender for a starting job opposite Troy Stoudermire, as well. Was Carter just saying the right things or is he a changed player? Obviously, the Gophers and Carter need for it to be the latter. With better coaching, a renewed work ethic and an absence of nagging injuries, here’s betting on Carter holding back opposing receivers, instead of holding back himself, in 2011.