Posts tagged 15 for 2012
Posts tagged 15 for 2012
1. MarQueis Gray | QB | Senior | 6'4” 245 lbs. Passing: CMP YDS YPA TD INT 50.7 1,495 7.02 8 8 Rushing: ATT YDS AVG TD 199 966 4.9 6 Photo credit: Chris Polydoroff/Pioneer Press
If the Golden Gophers reach a bowl this year, it will be because MarQueis Gray lead them to one. Plain and simple, he’s the centerpiece of the offense, the team’s most talented player and starts at the most important position in all of football. Likewise, if he gets hurt, the reigns are thrown to sophomore Max Shortell, who still needs time to develop into a Division I starting quarterback. Ranking Gray at No. 1 should be a surprise to no one. We don’t advocate violence, but we surely don’t endorse abject stupidity: If someone says the Gophers should move Gray to wide receiver or just bench him outright, go punch them in the face. Here’s why.
There’s no doubt that Gray needs to improve his accuracy – likewise, his receivers will have to make the most of their chances – but once Gray decides to tuck the ball and run, there aren’t many other quarterbacks who can match his mix of speed and power. His 174 rushing yards against Illinois set the school’s single game rushing record for quarterbacks and, even with missing a game, his 966 rushing yards last year set the team’s single-season record for quarterbacks, as well.
Gray rushed for the third-most yards among quarterbacks at the FBS-level last year, although Jerry Kill and Co. would like for the team’s running backs to contribute more to the running game in 2012. Gray was forced into often fleeing the pocket in 2011 due to little protection from a young offensive line that was also battered by injuries. Those absences up front caused several untested and undersized underclassmen into playing time, negatively impacting the running game, leaving Gray as the team’s only real rushing threat. As I wrote in James Gillum’s write-up, the rushing game needs to take a step forward, which in turn should help Gray’s passing and allow him to pick his spots in rushing the ball. Last year’s “scrambling for your life” approach wasn’t exactly by design. Although Denard Robinson and Gray are very different types of mobile quarterbacks, a more ideal situation would be like at Michigan in 2011, where running back Fitzgerald Toussaint complimented Robinson.
Football is a team sport and no one player can be completely responsible for the result of an entire game, but the fact of the matter is that when Gray played well, the team played well and when Gray left the game, the Gophers ended up playing poorly on offense. Without breaking things down to a play-by-play basis and citing somewhat generalities, the one game Gray completely missed ended horribly, a 58-0 drubbing at the hands of Michigan. On the flip side, when Gray played well, the Gophers beat Iowa and Illinois. (Somehow, the Hawkeyes beat the Wolverines. Conventional wisdom and the Sid Hartman Transitive Property of Sports suggested that any team the Gophers beat would have lost to Michigan by an amount somewhere between 50 and 3,000 points.)
Gray also needs to have his hands all over 2012’s offensive game plan because his backups are untested. Max Shortell moved the ball well at first in the season opener against USC, but as the season went on, he was just as inconsistent throwing the ball as Gray and he wasn’t nearly the running threat. When the coach is brand new you can’t necessarily call for his head without sounding completely ridiculous, so the lazy fans’ onus falls onto to the QB when things are going right. As a true freshman, Shortell ended up compiling a passer efficiency rating and completion percentage that were both worse than Gray’s numbers. Kill likes to switch up his quarterbacks at times and Shortell has the tools to be a decent quarterback eventually, but at this point, he should be no more than a solid backup who only sees the field due to injury.
In 2011, the Gophers were a football team with many issues and several major issues. Gray’s passing accuracy was an issue, but major issues were things like defensive back play, the performance of the offensive line and little help from the running game. Gray has the tools and talent to be the most dynamic quarterback the Gophers have had in at least 20 years.
He will need to be if the maroon and gold hope to reach a bowl in 2012.
2. James Gillum| RB | Junior | 5'11” 204 lbs. Junior College Transfer Photo credit: University of Minnesota Athletic Department
The Golden Gophers return four players who scored a rushing touchdown last year. One is the starting quarterback, one is a walk-on kicker who scored on a trick play and one is now a linebacker. The last player, the lone running back of the four, totaled 229 yards on the season.
So, uh, fire up that rouser!
To say the team lacks depth at running back is an understatement. The team returns sophomores Donnell Kirkwood, David Cobb and Devon Wright, but all three had trouble either staying healthy or breaking through the depth chart last year. So far, those guys have been just as unlucky this spring and summer: Cobb injured his knee in spring practice and Kirkwood is returning from a hamstring injury, although both seem healthy again. For now. Still, in Jerry Kill and Matt Limegrover’s run-heavy offense, those kind of reviews don’t inspire much confidence.
In the three years Kill spent at Northern Illinois University, the offense ran the ball about 64 percent of the time. Last year, the Gophers ran the ball 63 percent of the time, remarkable still, considering they were often behind as soon as their opponents’ first drive was completed. With the uncertainty surrounding the position, junior college transfer James Gillum immediately steps into a starting spot and lead running back role for the Gophers.
Gillum comes to the program after spending two years Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, where in 2011 he was named a preseason junior college All-American. In high school, his teams mainly ran basic wing T type stuff, but he learned the spread and blitz pickup in college, according to The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. That experience should allow him to step in immediately in regard to blocking schemes and blitz pickup.
Looking at the Kill and Co. offensive scheme, we can predict that MarQueis Gray will again tally a lot of rushing attempts. As far as the running back position, the coaching staff would prefer to have a smaller scatback split carries with a bruising short-yardage guy, but as things currently reside, it’s unknown if the team can count on the running backs outside of Gillum. There are two newcomers who have promise; Rodrick Williams, Jr. looks like a beast, while fellow incoming freshman K.J. Maye brings a level of agility that none of the other running backs possess, but it’s unclear how much the pair will play as true freshmen or if they will redshirt.
As Limegrover told 1500ESPN’s Darren Wolfson in 2011, they would prefer to have a third-down back and divide the workload. But the depth chart this year might not allow them to do so, especially if they decide to redshirt Maye. As MV showed in his list of junior college running backs that Kill has previously recruited, this staff has a talent for plucking junior college kids from the ranks. This staff expects Gillum to play.
Watching Gillum’s tape,
he takes every single carry to the house for a touchdown he doesn’t have blazing speed and is obviously not a bruiser, but Gophers coaches have continually pointed to his shiftiness and his ability to make tacklers miss. The junior will play early and will be looked upon to play often. Limegrover told BTN’s Tom Dienhart this summer that the Gophers could give the ball to Gillum 22 to 25 times a game.
“He’s durable. He’s tough,” Limegrover told Dienhart. “He has a knack for hitting the hole. He’s our kind of guy. There also are some young kids in the mix.”
As Limegrover said, Gillum is the main guy, the other running backs are in the mix. The starting job is Gillum’s to take.
Not so fun stat: The Gophers’ last 1,000-yard rusher came in 2006, as Amir Pinnix rushed for 1,272 yards. Before that, the Gophers had at least one 1,000-yard rusher each year going back to 1999. By the end of 2012 we could be singing the praises of Kirkwood or Cobb, but their inability to contribute last year – granted, it wasn’t all their fault – underscores how vital Gillum is to the Gophers offense.
Expect Gillum to be a workhorse back, given every chance to carry the ball 20 times a game. He will have to if the Gophers expect to succeed offensively in 2012.
3. Troy Stoudermire | CB | Senior | 5'10” 200 lbs. G TK Solo TFL INT PD FF 4 24 20 3 2 3 0 Photo credit: Marisa Wojcik / Minnesota Daily
Troy Stoudermire walks into 2012 as the leader of the Gophers’ defensive backfield, if not the defense as a whole.
Defensive coordinator Tracey Claeys has an affinity for leaving his cornerbacks on an island, particularly the primary outside corner, or “boundary” corner in the Gophers defense. At the onset of 2011, that position belonged to Stoudermire. Highlighting his agility and also his strength, Stoudermire could play press coverage on an island without getting beaten like a rented mule, allowing a safety to cheat up in run coverage, take the place of a blitzing linebacker or help in deep zone.
If you remember the USC game, Robert Woods was able to get free on bubble screens and slants early in the game, taking advantage of man coverage and at other times, a soft cushion when he was lined up against Brock Vereen. In the second half though, Claeys was able to disguise coverages between man and zone, confusing Matt Barkley a bit, as he brought a cornerback on a blitz or cheated a safety toward the box. Stoudermire’s ability allowed Claeys to try and hide a glaring hole at safety across from senior Kim Royston. However, Stoudermire snapped a bone in his left forearm against Miami (Ohio) and wasn’t able to make it through the first quarter of the following week’s game against North Dakota State University. It was the last he played in 2011 and the thin defensive secondary unraveled thereafter, before rallying a bit near the end of the year.*
* - I should take a moment to say the pass defense wasn’t the biggest problem in 2011. On passing downs, the Gophers ranked 45 out of all 120 teams in Football Outsiders’ defensive S&P ranking. The Passing S&P as a whole was 63rd, while the rushing S&P ranked 93. The defense as a whole ranked 89th. Granted, the Gophers played from behind a lot and didn’t have nearly as many passing downs as rushing downs, but it is an important distinction nonetheless. MV also pointed these statistics out in his 2012 defensive back preview.
So what is S&P? S&P is a stat combination, similar to OPS in baseball. It is literally defined as the combination of a defense’s efficiency (“Success Rate”) and its explosiveness (“Equivalent Points Per Play). Taken simply, a team that has a good defense stops offenses a lot and doesn’t give up a lot of big scoring plays. Here is a more in-depth definition: A defensive success rate is defined by the percentage of plays targeting a defense in which the offense did not have a “successful” play. Equivalent Points Per Play gives each yard line a point value based on the average amount of points that a team can expect to score from that position on the field. The actual stats are then given a point value compared to that assigned point value. For more information about these terms, check out the Football Outsiders glossary.
When Stoudermire went down, the cornerbacks who stepped in were not able to play press coverage as well without the help of a safety. However, the run defense often needed an extra defender in the box and, well, you should be able to see the dominoes starting to fall.
Although the Gophers have brought in three junior college cornerbacks to provide depth, everyone knows who is No. 1. The better Stoudermire is on the corner, locking down opponents’ best receiving targets, the better the defense will be as a whole. He has returned this spring fully healthy, reportedly looking strong throughout spring and fall practice.
I have to admit I’m surprised to see Stoudermire in this position. In September 2010 he was suspended indefinitely by then-coach Tim Brewster. Stoudermire made a Facebook post about leaving the team, but was reinstated and moved back to defense, where he had started his Gopher career in 2008. Midway through his freshman year in 2008, Brewster moved the speedy corner to wide receiver, in order to capitalize on his playmaking ability. He continued as a kick returner and wide receiver in 2009.
(Important footnote: It was this year against Iowa when Jedd Fisch and Brewster famously called for the Weber to Stoudermire jump ball on the two-yard line on third down, in the fourth quarter. The 5-foot, 10-inch Stoudermire was unable to reel in the pass.)
As Stoudermire’s progress at receiver seemed stagnant, he instantly responded to playing cornerback near the end of 2010 and entered 2011 as the unquestioned No. 1. After last year’s season-ending injury, the NCAA granted him a fifth-year, and he’s now the leader of a young defensive secondary.
If Troy Stoudermire does nothing else in his Gopher career, he will at least be remembered for several years for his brutal fumble-causing hit on Marcus Coker in 2010, a play that guaranteed the Floyd of Rosedale would return to Minnesota. The hit put an exclamation point on the end of the Gophers’ three-year winless streak in rivalry trophy games.
In 2012, the Gophers need him to display more of that flair for the big moment.
4. Ra'Shede Hageman | DT | Junior | 6'6” 300 lbs. G TK Solo TFL SK FF 12 13 10 3.5 2.0 1 Photo credit: Chris Polydoroff/Pioneer Press
Last November at TCF Bank Stadium, Ra’Shede Hageman crouched in his four point stance as Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase barked out signals and adjusted his offense. The QB snapped the ball and Hageman bull rushed past Illinois center Graham Pocic with a combination of power and speed that would fit in perfectly on a high school recruit’s highlight tape.
Looking at the clip now, there’s no need to put a red circle around Hageman. It’s impossible to ignore him once the play starts. Hageman tosses Pocic out of his way, fends off a desperate flail from a second lineman, Alex Hill, and wraps his arms around Scheelhaase, tossing him to the turf and causing the QB to fumble the ball.
Maybe there was a blocking mishap and Hill was late to his double team. Maybe Hageman was finally realizing the potential he brought to Dinkytown when he enrolled in 2009. Recruiting expert Tom Lemming named him the No. 1 tight end prospect in the nation coming out of Washburn High School, but Hageman was quickly moved to defensive end. He struggled with picking up the techniques of defensive line in his first two years in Minnesota, but stood out near the end of last year with two sacks against Illinois and four tackles against Iowa. Worth noting, his two sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and 12 of 13 total tackles came within the last six games of the year.
Talent and size will never be an issue with Hageman. It will be technique, football IQ and desire that defines his career. Call him the football team’s version of Rodney Williams. There’s a reason that MV dubbed him “Optimus Prime.”
Can Hageman put it together this year as a junior? So far, reports from the spring are an emphatic “Yes.” But legends are not judged by how well they dominated their teammates in spring practice. Hageman was suspended in 2010 by then interim coach Jeff Horton for academic troubles. Also of note, Hageman was arrested this spring for disorderly conduct, although some blog postings at the the time said that he was trying to break up a fight, rather than start one. The charges were eventually dropped June 11. Hopefully that’s a sign of his progress.
Again, it’s clear Hageman has the potential. The Gophers need him to translate that into consistent production like the Illinois game and the second half of last season, with Hageman wreaking havoc on the opposing offensive line, disrupting both the running and passing games. If Hageman reaches his potential, gone are the days of quarterbacks like Zac Dysert scrambling around like Fran Tarkenton, waiting for receivers to break free. The Gophers should also receive help up front from junior college transfer Roland Johnson.
Some fans have said that Hageman could be the second-most important player on the Gophers this year and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them. It’s up to Hageman to finally fulfill that promise.
5. Ed Olson | LT | Junior | 6'7” 305 lbs. G ST 12 10 Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Athletic Department
While the Gophers lose three seniors on the offensive line from 2011, they return Olson, who is entering his third year of starting at left tackle for the Gophers. The redshirt junior will again be tasked with guarding quarterback MarQueis Gray’s blindside, but he also becomes the undisputed leader of the offensive line.
Olson is one of two upperclassmen (both juniors) on the Gophers’ very young line and at left tackle, will need to set the tone for the entire group. Last year, injuries hit the offensive line, pushing guys who would have benefitted from another year of seasoning into larger roles; Olson’s brother Tommy started three games as a true freshman due to injuries and a lack of depth. By the end of 2011, only two linemen who started against USC ended the season playing the same line position. Olson was not one of those players.
The idea this year is that hopefully enough depth exists to redshirt the incoming freshmen, that hopefully those returning have matured in Eric Klein’s offseason program — that the reported 20 pounds that each lineman has added will translate on the field and that overall, hopefully the offensive line will be much improved.
It’s probably a bad sign that I used “hope” so much in that paragraph.
Even though he stands 6-foot, 7-inches tall, Olson is not the biggest or most heralded lineman in the Gophers’ stable. He certainly isn’t among the conference’s left tackles – college football blogger Adam Jacobi ranked Olson 10th among the Big Ten’s starting left tackles. However, Olson needs to play as though he is the Gophers’ brightest star up front, especially while the more heralded but younger Jimmy Gjere continues to develop his pass protection. Olson undoubtably brings the most experience to the squad as a two-year starter. If he remains healthy, the Gophers will be able to keep some of the younger linemen on the sidelines. If Olson gets hurt or loses his position, an undersized and unprepared underclassman gets thrown into the unenviable position of trying to block William Gholston.
The offensive line will be the engine for this year’s offense. Without strong play up front, quarterback MarQueis Gray will end up with little time to throw and the running backs will again fail to make much of an impression. For Jerry Kill and Matt Limegrover’s offense to gain traction, they need the offensive line to make some room.
Olson leads that group up front.
6. Mike Rallis | LB | Senior | 6'2” 245 lbs. G TK Solo TFL SK FF PD 12 83 53 5 1.5 0 2 Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Athletic Department
Mike Rallis will start the 2012 season as the Gophers middle linebacker, moving from the outside, where he played for the last two years. Rallis has been a solid player in his career and tallied the third-most tackles on the team in 2011, the most of any returning player. He has grown into a decent linebacker from defensive back, his original position.
First, the good. He’s a dedicated and tireless worker, a player who became a scholarship starter after coming to campus as a preferred walk-on. It’s become regular for him to impress after his offseason workouts; he bulked up once to become a linebacker and now has added another 10 or so pounds to move inside. His acclimation during the spring earned praise from teammate Spencer Reeves and also the player he is replacing, the late Gary Tinsley.
“He’s never played there, but he’s smart enough,” Tinsley told 1500ESPN’s Nate Sandell in March, weeks before Tinlsey’s untimely death. “He’s gotten way bigger. He looks like a middle linebacker.”
But will Rallis be able to seamlessly transition to middle linebacker? As Reeves told 1500ESPN, Rallis probably knows the defense as well as the coaching staff, but Rallis’s problem won’t be knowing where to go, it will be getting there. Will he be able to shed blocks, something he had trouble with as an outside linebacker?
In an ideal world, Brendan Beal would be crushing running backs like pop cans for the Gophers and Rallis would be solid on the outside. In an ideal world, Beal’s knee ligaments wouldn’t be held together with masking tape and wishes granted from pennies thrown into park fountains. Of course, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world where last year Purdue – PURDUE! - went to a bowl, Michigan beat the Gophers by nearly 60 points and Wisconsin went to their second consecutive Rose Bowl. Beal has had to deal with several serious, season-long injuries: a torn anterior cruciate ligament in 2008, neck and elbow injuries in 2009 and another knee injury in 2011. To add to the litany of awful luck, he separated his shoulder in his last high school game. Seriously, I don’t know how Beal has the resolve to come back to the football field. I hope he is able to finish at the University with a degree and find success in his eventual career. It’s wishful thinking to expect much from Beal on the field.
* Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago, when Beal’s status was still unknown. He has since been medically cleared for practice, although it’s still unknown what toll his injuries have had on his body. If he can play, I’d expect him to regularly rotate through a few snaps, but I still wouldn’t expect him to be the sole contributor at middle linebacker.
If anyone can make the transition from outside linebacker to middle, Rallis has the right make-up to do so. Again, he’s a dedicated player who senses the importance of senior leadership. More importantly, if he can’t make the transition, the roster is awfully thin at this point of players who could step in. If Minnesota’s defense can continue the improvement it made during the second-half of last season, Rallis will figure to be a large part of it.
7. Brock Vereen | CB | Junior | 6'0” 195 lbs. G TK SOLO INT PDEF TFL FF 12 67 46 1 7 3.5 1 Photo credit: Christy Aumer / Daily Iowan
In 2011, Brock Vereen emerged as a solid tackler and a dependable cornerback. This season, however, he sets out to prove himself again, this time at safety.
Vereen started out last season as the starting cornerback opposite Troy Stoudermire, but was pressed into the No. 1 spot early on after Stoudermire was lost for the season due to injury. There were times, often in the same game, when Vereen would make a bone-crushing hit, but then also bite badly on a double move or pump fake for a touchdown. By the end of the season though, Vereen settled in and provided steady play at corner. Moving to safety, the defense can take advantage of his tackling and ball skills, while taking him out of regular man coverage.
Vereen hails from California and was a three-star prospect (Rivals) coming out of high school. His older brother Shane plays running back for the New England Patriots and played college football for California. Vereen is a smart player and on a note unrelated to football, bears the distinction of being one of the few athletes worth following on Twitter. (His back and forth with teammates about the difference of “to, too, and two” is an example.)
Vereen is expected to earn the free safety spot in fall practice and start alongside sophomore Derrick Wells, who also moved over from cornerback this offseason after bulking up a reported 30 pounds. Also in the mix this year at safety is Cedric Thompson, although Vereen seems to have the inside track on a starting job. While Kim Royston provided strong play and leadership at safety last year, the other safety position was a revolving door. Shady Salamon was the starter at the beginning of the year, but the hard-hitter tended to cover like the former running back he was. By the Illinois game, the starting free safety was former walk-on cornerback Chase Haviland, who stood five-feet, nine-inches tall and weighed 179 pounds. This year, Vereen and Wells are expected to take a position of weakness last year and turn it into a positive.
One expects the defense to utter some growing pains as it moves from the sophomore Wells from Royston, but Vereen brings size, speed and skill into the position, which should allow the Gophers to rely more on the safeties to help out in both run support and pass coverage. Vereen didn’t practice this spring while recovering from a minor knee surgery this offseason, but he will be ready for fall two-a-days.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys told 1500ESPN’s Nate Sandell that he expects some rough patches through the non-conference schedule, which makes the early season match-up with Western Michigan’s chuck-and-duck passing game particularly interesting.
“I’m a little uneasy with the secondary,” Claeys said told Sandell. “One thing I do like about having the non-conference games early is those kids will have a chance to get there feet underneath them and go. As far as their abilities and being able to do the job, I couldn’t be more pleased with those guys. But again, there’s going to be growing pains, because some of them haven’t played a lot of game snaps at the position they are at.”
The secondary should be a position of relative strength and depth this year; banking on Vereen being a solid contributor.
8. Keanon Cooper | LB | Senior | 6'0” 220 lbs. G TK Solo TFL SK FF PD 12 77 34 6 1.0 2 2 Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Athletic Department
One of the most celebrated Gopher recruits in recent memory, much was made of Keanon Cooper’s switch to Minnesota on National Signing Day in 2008. Named to Rivals’ “Big Ten Signing Day Dream Team*” as a safety, Cooper redshirted a year and switched to linebacker.
He has since been a steady and solid presence for the Gophers. For a player who was highly touted coming to Minnesota and who has lettered three times, much has been written about his recruitment, his friendship with the late Gary Tinsley, even how he prefers to wear his jersey. But little has been written about Cooper’s on-field production.
That could change if the senior delivers a stand-out 2012.
* - A note about that “Dream Team”: It hasn’t exactly turned into a who’s who of the Big Ten’s best every Saturday. For example, here is the bulk of the offense (non-linemen):
• Running back Michael Shaw passed the 1,000 yard by one yard at Michigan. In his entire career.
• Fellow running back Terrance Robinson was moved to receiver and has two career catches entering his senior year at Michigan.
• Wide receiver DeVier Posey had a very solid career with Ohio State until his senior year, when he was suspended for 10 games.
• The other wideout, Michigan State’s Fred Smith, was moved to fullback before leaving MSU.
• Tight End Jake Stoneburner has been very good for Ohio State, but he was suspended from the team for the summer.
• The team’s quarterback? MarQueis Gray.
There are some very good players on the list (Mike Adams from Ohio State, for one) and definitely a few guys who are at the least solid contributors. Still, it again shows the difficulty in tabbing 17- and 18-year-olds as future stars or clipboard carriers before they have even reached campus. Too many unknown variables exist.
Also, it seems to show that if you go to Ohio State, you’re probably going to be suspended at some point in your career.
Playing through a wrist injury much of last year, Cooper totaled fourth on the Gophers in tackles with 77 and tallied the second-most tackles for loss. He has since undergone wrist surgery and was held out of spring practice as a precautionary measure. Cooper also dealt directly with the untimely death of Tinsley; Cooper was the person who found Tinsley unresponsive in his bedroom. Emotionally, I have no idea how a 22-year-old will handle such a tragedy and I’d rather not speculate. Instead, I’ll make an awkward transition back to football.
Cooper is one of the fastest Gophers on the team, if undersized a bit at linebacker. The preceding link directs to a blog entry by Phil Miller of the Star-Tribune in which Cooper bested all comers on the team in heads-up sprints. It seems Cooper may have gotten a bit of a Seinfeld head-start to win, but everyone seemed content with saying he was the team’s fastest player. If not, he’s a step behind Troy Stoudermire. Adding to his athleticism, Cooper is a smart player who has been twice named Academic All-Big Ten.
Cooper was sidelined so far this spring while he recovered from surgery, but he will be ready to play this fall. Even though he had to wear a non-contact jersey this spring, Cooper intently followed along at practice with defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, said Nate Sandell of 1500ESPN, the senior acting as a leader and quasi-coach for fellow linebackers LaMonte Edwards and James Manuel. Cooper is a smart, fast player who will have a lot expected of him. With Mike Rallis moving over to the middle and learning that position, Cooper needs to be a player who is always in the right position and also someone who can help Rallis along with the transition. He will also need to help the rotating cast of Aaron Hill, Spencer Reeves, Edwards, Manuel and any other linebackers who might play the outside position on the other side of the field. Although Cooper is a bit undersized for run defense and one-on-one tackling, his speed allows him to be a great asset for both blitzing and coverage. More importantly, without the wrist injury this year and a hopefully improved defensive unit, Claeys should be able to utilize Cooper on blitzes more often.
The 2011 defense was decent in passing situations, but struggled against the run. Football Outsiders and Bill Connelly ranked* the Gophers rushing defense 93rd out of 120 teams, while the defense as a whole ranked 89th. With two young, underclassmen possibly starting at defensive end and a converted middle linebacker this year, the defense is going to need the few established players to step up in run coverage when possible.
Still, there is evidence that the Gophers’ defense should slightly improve compared to last year, mainly due to an overhauled secondary and more experienced front-four, specifically Ra’Shede Hageman, Ben Perry and Michael Amaefula. If that defensive improvement occurs, Cooper’s leadership on the field will need to be a large part of it.
* - One way Football Outsiders ranks defenses is by a statistic called “S&P,” which is a stat combination, similar to OPS in baseball. It is literally defined as the combination of a defense’s efficiency (“Success Rate”) and its explosiveness (“Equivalent Points Per Play). Taken simply, a team that has a good defense stops the opposing offense a lot and in turn, doesn’t give up a lot of big scoring plays. Here is a more in-depth definition: A defensive success rate is defined by the percentage of plays targeting a defense in which the offense did not have a “successful” play. Equivalent Points Per Play gives each yard line a point value based on the average amount of points that a team can expect to score from that position on the field. The actual stats are then given a point value compared to that assigned point value. For more information about these terms, check out the Football Outsiders glossary.
9. Brandon Green | WR | Senior | 6'0” 190 lbs. G REC YDS AVG. TD 12 15 190 12.7 1 Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Athletic Department
With Da’Jon McKnight moving on to the NFL, Brandon Green becomes the longest tenured Gopher wide receiver. However, that’s a loaded statement like being named the smartest kid in remedial math class.
Green was the team’s third leading receiver last year by one catch, but again, that’s another loaded statement; if Marcus Jones doesn’t have a knee injury, Jones would have likely passed Green’s receiving total of 15 catches. Although Green is a senior, he has totaled only 56 catches in three years of action.
Caption Obvious alert: The Gophers receiving corps is shallow and unproven. I’m currently writing about the most experienced receiver on the team and he had only 15 catches in his junior year.
Still, Green has potential. A four-star recruit who was part of former coach Tim Brewster’s vaunted 2008 class, Green has had a mostly underwhelming career at Minnesota. As a true freshman in 2008, Green tallied 261 yards in a four game stretch against Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin. During the same stretch, future Denver Bronco receiver Eric Decker, who was the team’s main source of offense, had 110 yards and missed one game with an injury.
So Green had a great freshman year, right? Well, not exactly.
He ended the season with only 298 yards, only 37 more than that four-game outburst. He had a nondescript sophomore year in 2009 and then suffered a knee injury that caused him to sit out much of the 2010 year. Last year, Green caught one ball in every game, but only added a second when it was a deep pass, like during the Michigan and Northwestern games.
Injuries have robbed some of Green’s explosiveness, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover told 1500ESPN’s Nate Sandell this spring.
“I feel bad for Brandon,” Limegrover told Sandell. “He was a phenomenal high school player. The injuries have taken some of that away from him. That’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for anybody, any player who has that ability and their body just won’t let them do what they know in their mind and have that mental picture of what they’ve done in the past.”
Quarterback MarQueis Gray’s accuracy is still a large concern, so the receivers need to make the most of their chances. The Gophers simply don’t have the luxury of dropping open passes. Green demonstrated good hands last year in delivering the team’s second highest catch rate with 71.4 percent, but it’s hard to extrapolate that much from a sample size of 21 targets. (In comparison, leading receiver Da’Jon McKnight caught 54.3 percent of his 94 targets. These stats come from the brilliant Bill Connelly of Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.)
It’s reasonable to expect Green to step up to McKnight’s departed spot, although Marcus Jones’s return from last year’s knee injury makes a murky depth chart more cloudy. Although Jones’s ceiling is much higher at this point, Green has displayed more consistent hands. With the same number of targets, Jones’s catch rate was 42.9 percent. Again, it’s a small sample size.
As I wrote earlier about Jones and Devin Crawford-Tufts, the Gophers need a consistent deep threat or two to emerge. Green isn’t going to suddenly morph into Eric Decker or Ernie Wheelwright, but he has shown glimpses of ability to at least provide sure hands on a deep fade route. If Green doesn’t prove himself in fall practice, he could watch his job slip away to one of the other underclassmen that are now on campus, but the best scenario would be if Green finally delivers on his promise and becomes dependable in 2012.
10. Jimmy Gjere | RT | Sophomore | 6'7” 325 lbs. G ST 5 5
Jimmy Gjere might be the most well-regarded offensive lineman on the Gophers roster; however, he hasn’t been able to fully deliver on the field in his young career. By the same point, it’s important to remember that he’s only entering his redshirt sophomore year. Ideally, Gjere* wouldn’t have taken the field at all last year, instead waiting until his pass protection skills developed.
* - Everyone refers to Gjere as “Jimmy,” although his personal Twitter account says his name is “Jim Gjere.” I feel like we should be calling him “Jim” if that’s what he really wants. Then again, he’s 6-foot, 7-inches tall and weighs more than 300 pounds. Maybe we should call him “Mr. Gjere.”
After starting five games at right tackle last year, Gjere suffered a concussion and missed the rest of the season. Although he was held out of contact during spring practices, Gjere received full medical clearance July 2 to return to the field. He’s expected to start at right tackle and continue to emerge as an an anchor on the offensive line.
As Big Ten blogger Adam Jacobi wrote this spring, “Gjere is, quite simply, the type of player you build an offensive line around.” Gjere came to Minnesota as a four-star recruit out of Irondale High, spurning reported interest from more established Big Ten programs like Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin. When Gjere was a high school prospect, Rivals.com Recuriting Analyst Barry Every wrote that Gjere needed to improve his pass protection skills and that could cause his career to start off slowly. Every continued that Gjere “could become a beast” down the line, though, due to his intelligence, quick feet and imposing size.
So far in Gjere’s young career, Every has nailed it.
Gjere performed well in run blocking situations last year, but his lack of experience came to light as more seasoned pass rushers were able to dominate him in pass protection. But those skills should still develop. He is likely the most agile lineman in the Gophers program and his combination of size and speed is exceptional. Gjere has already gained about 30 pounds of good weight since his freshman year and has demonstrated his intelligence in the classroom – he was named Academic All-Big Ten.
A pessimistic outlook is that Gjere is a major question mark entering this year, due to his raw inexperience and injury issues. An optimistic outlook is that Gjere was pressed into action far too early in his career and that he has recovered from his injury – as much as a person can “recover” from a concussion.
Call me an optimist. I fully expect Gjere to continue to develop as a pass blocker and eventually become a mainstay of an offensive line that could become one of the conference’s best in a few years.