- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Last week, I caught up with Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys and wrote about the Gophers' linebacker situation. Claeys had other interesting things to say about the defense as a whole, and here they are in Q&A form:
What were your general thoughts on the defense coming out of spring practice?
Tracy Claeys: I think by far it was our best spring. I look forward to getting back with them in fall camp, and hopefully that carries over. I'd be disappointed if we don't play better than we did a year ago.
It appears as if more of your players pass the "look test" on that side of the ball, though that doesn't always translate into results. But you seem to have better athletes. Would you agree with that?
TC: Yeah, and I think that was the main thing. When you're the University of Minnesota, it takes developing some kids. We've taken some kids who were a little bit smaller but who could run. Now they've had a couple of years in the weight room, and they've put on some weight. So I think all that's going well. We felt like we needed to run better with the spread offenses and the hurry-up stuff people are doing. I do think we've improved athletically, and now having had a couple of years in the weight room, I think our size is getting better. We're still not where we need to be, but I think we can make up for a little bit of that size with the strength and toughness we've added.
How did Derrick Wells' transition from safety back to corner go?
TC: Good. I think that is his natural position. He played well at safety, but with his size that's something that will help us on the edge. He runs well enough to do it, and we have enough depth at safety that I think it balances everything out a lot better and gives us a chance to be consistent. I've been very pleased with the secondary and where we're at there.
You've got some taller guys in the defensive backfield. Is that part of your philosophy, or is it just how things have worked out?
TC: Well, you've got to be able to run -- that's the number one thing. And playing in the Big Ten with some of the running game things people are doing, you've got to have guys who can tackle. Then the receivers are getting bigger -- everybody is putting those bigger receivers out there. I don't think you'll ever see a defense go with 6-foot-4 corners out there, but at least if you have some 6-1 guys with some strength and some length to them, you've got a chance on some of those jump balls and things that offenses are throwing up.
We always look at athletic ability first. It's important to be able to run. We've been able to develop a few kids and put some size on them -- Derrick was only 155, 160 pounds when he got here and has really benefited from the weight room. You go back and wish you could have redshirted some of them. Derrick is going to be a senior next year and so is [safety] Cedric [Thompson]; we just weren't in a situation where we able to redshirt those kids, and really their bodies, you see them just now developing as they should. They really should be redshirt sophomores with three years to play, but that's part of the situation we were in. We feel we have great kids who have worked hard to get to where they are without redshirting.
I guess the flip side to that is, they've gotten a lot of experience.
TC: That's true, and that's part of why we changed about five years ago on secondary kids. We said, 'Hey, if they can help, we might as well play them.' Because there's a lot of space out there, and everybody is spreading the field. And then they get a lot more comfortable. Eric Murray, he's going to be the one this year at corner. We played him a little bit last year, and now he knows what it's like to go out in a big stadium and play in front of people. I think a lot of times [experience] does outweigh the benefit of redshirting as long as you can recruit and replace those kids.
How do you feel about the defensive end position going into the fall and your ability to rush the passer?
TC: Theiren Cockran continues to get bigger and had a good spring. Alex Keith is another guy I wish we could have redshirted, but he has good pass-rushing ability and has improved in the weight room. Michael [Amaefula] is coming back, and Ben Perry. So I feel really good about the defensive line. I feel the best about it since I've been here. I think we're going to have depth up there. I'm really looking forward to seeing those guys teeing it up on gameday.
It all seems to start with stopping the run in the Big Ten, and you guys have had your ups and downs there. How do you feel about your ability to do that this season?
TC: I think sometimes our front four has taken a little too much heat. Our first year, we didn't play well in the front four. Last year, we played awfully well there, and the kids continue to get better. Our run issues were another part besides just the front four. So I think we're getting closer to getting that corrected. We're better up front than what we were a year ago and we have more depth. And I still think that's where games are won or lost up front, especially when you can keep kids healthy and get them through the 11th or 12th game.
We haven't changed a lot scheme-wise and we're not going to change a lot, just make little adjustments here and there. They're getting more comfortable, and then the more comfortable you get, the quicker you get off the ball and the more plays you make.
You should have some good competition for playing time in the front seven when training camp opens next month. How do you think that will affect the overall development?
TC: It can help you, but you can also get some kids who are afraid of competition, make excuses and don't perform as well. When you start winning ball games is when you have kids who compete to play and don't make excuses. That's how we continue to improve as a football team. Right now, I think we've got kids who like to compete. One thing we've done since we've been here and where we've been before is, if you don't play well in the game, then the next week your spot is up for grabs. And we're going to play the people who most consistently work hard and give us the best chance to win each week. Plus, when you play as many kids as we play, then kids go through practice knowing they're going to have an opportunity to play in the game; it's just a matter of whether you take advantage of it or not. I think we do have a group of kids who like to compete and when you have competition, it keeps everybody on their toes.
TC: You're as good as your seniors. I believe that. You've got to have playmakers on the field, and they don't always have to be seniors, but the better the leadership comes from seniors, the better football team you've got. What's good about those three is that they all work their butts off -- they don't take days off in the weight room or stuff like that. I think that's the main thing for a leader. You've got to be somebody who puts in the time to be successful, and all three of those kids have. And with that, they're developing other ones. Maybe sometimes younger kids don't always know how to work the best when they get here, but then they see those seniors working hard, it puts that work ethic in everybody.
1324dAdam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett