Big Ten: Derrick Wells

Michigan State's secondary calls itself the "No Fly Zone." LSU bills itself as "DBU" -- Defensive Back University.

Minnesota lacks a widely known nickname for its secondary, which is fine for now.

"Maybe in another year or two, we get there," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel recently told ESPN.com. "We don't need catchphrases because every day here, you're still fighting for respect."

[+] EnlargeBriean Boddy-Calhoun
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBriean Boddy-Calhoun is one reason Minnesota's low-key secondary has maintained a high level.
The fight isn't an original one. Groups of players adopt it in every sport, in every year. But the formula has worked for Minnesota's secondary, which has quietly emerged as one of the Big Ten's best groups the past few years.

Arguably no Big Ten team had a better cornerback tandem this season than Minnesota's Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray. Safety Cedric Thompson led the unit and Damarius Travis provided versatility and durability. Calhoun, Thompson and Travis combined for eight interceptions and five forced fumbles, helping Minnesota tie for 10th nationally in average turnover margin.

Like the Minnesota program, which has reached a third consecutive bowl game under coach Jerry Kill, the secondary isn't a one-year riser. It has strung together several solid seasons, employing an aggressive, complex scheme that produces big plays from multiple contributors. Yet few have taken notice. Before the season, Sawvel showed his players a ranking of Big Ten secondaries that had Minnesota 11th following the loss of all-conference performer Brock Vereen, a fourth-round NFL draft pick.

"It was a symbol that, 'Hey, you don't have the respect of the guy who had equivalent production at Penn State or Michigan State or Iowa,'" Sawvel said. "We can play a lack-of-respect card around here because truthfully, it has been that way."

It's easy for Sawvel to motivate his players like this. Of Minnesota's top six defensive backs -- Boddy-Calhoun, Murray, Thompson, Travis, cornerback Derrick Wells and safety Antonio Johnson -- none received another Power 5 offer coming out of high school.

"I'm a guy that likes to be underrated and overlooked," Boddy-Calhoun said. "People still little-brother us with the whole Minnesota thing."

The departure of Vereen fueled the tepid expectations outside the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. Two reasons have prevented a Gopher backslide: the emergence of Boddy-Calhoun and Travis.

Boddy-Calhoun led Minnesota in interceptions (four) and passes defended (12). He forced six total turnovers, more than all but two Big Ten players (Maryland's Will Likely and Nebraska's Nate Gerry).

The junior's breakout season came a year late. Poised for big things in 2013, Boddy-Calhoun had an 89-yard pick-six in Minnesota's opening win against UNLV. The following week he tore his ACL at New Mexico State, ending his season.

"I had big plans," Boddy-Calhoun said. "I put all that frustration and anger and used that as motivation to come back."

Sawvel knew Boddy-Calhoun was back when he made a slick over-the-shoulder interception on a fade route against TCU in Week 3.

"He was a really, really good basketball player in high school," Sawvel said. "You can see that point guard capability. He's the guy that sort of has the ball on a string."

Boddy-Calhoun provides playmaking, while Travis' ability to wear so many hats well has boosted Minnesota's secondary. He plays both nickel linebacker and high safety, and appears on every special teams unit.

Travis logged 95 plays against Nebraska and 96 against Wisconsin. He recorded 56 tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble and five pass breakups this season.

"He's big enough to fill in gaps and be good on the run, but he's also athletic enough to cover wide receivers, short guys, big guys," Boddy-Calhoun said. "He gave our defense a whole lot of versatility."

Travis' versatility allows Minnesota to diversify its scheme. You'll see snippets of Nebraska's matchup zone and Michigan State's Cover 4 in what the Gophers run, along with more man coverage than many secondaries. Minnesota's defensive backs, Sawvel said, "have a pretty good toolbox."

Travis recalls a play against Nebraska where Minnesota showed man but then dropped into Cover 3. It nearly led to an interception for Boddy-Calhoun.

"We have a real good disguise," Travis said. "We're always trying to paint a picture for the quarterback that he doesn't know what coverage we're in so he's a little shocked about what he sees and starts scrambling and starts panicking a little bit.

"That's what we really like."

The Gophers' defensive backs are a mature, focused, competitive group with football and a close-knit group off of the field. There have been dinners and bowling nights and even a trip to the go-kart track, where Travis edged Boddy-Calhoun in the final ("It came down to the last lap," Boddy-Calhoun laments).

The players call themselves "Dem Boyz" -- "For DBs," Boddy-Calhoun explained -- and have their own anthem (Wiz Khalifa's "We Dem Boyz").

Thursday, Dem Boyz take the field in Orlando against Missouri in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. It's Minnesota's first January appearance since the 1962 Rose Bowl.

Not a bad time to gain a W, and a little bit of the R-word, too.

"It's a big deal," Boddy-Calhoun said. "We get to make a statement as to who we are as a team. And as a secondary, we get to show the world on Jan. 1 what we are capable of."

Here's a hint: A lot.

Big Ten morning links

October, 9, 2014
10/09/14
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Chaos or calmness this weekend?

Fortunately we only have to wait two more days to find out. Until then, let's pass the time with some hot topics and the best links around for the Big Ten.

1. Undercover contender?: Maybe it's among the longest of long shots. Maybe the passing game is too weak, the schedule too hard and the rebuilding project too incomplete at this point. But if a one-loss Big Ten champion is likely to make it into the College Football Playoff field as I believe it is, why not Minnesota? Don't laugh. The Gophers will be favored in the next three games before taking the first Saturday in November off with a bye, and winning all those matchups would not only put them in the driver's seat in the West Division, it would potentially put them in position for an unlikely bid into the four-team field at the end of the season. Obviously the hard part will come next month when the Gophers host Ohio State and follow that up with an extremely difficult two-game road trip against Nebraska and Wisconsin. But if Minnesota can somehow find a way to run the table in the Big Ten, its only loss would be on the road against a TCU -- a defeat that looks better every week. Are the Gophers likely to pull it off? Of course not. But in a few weeks, the spotlight might be shining brightly on Jerry Kill's program.

2. Monitoring Michigan: The heat of Brady Hoke's seat hasn't cooled any, but at least for a week it seems like the attention has been more about on-field issues than what's going on in the Michigan athletic department or how the coach feels about his job security. Perhaps it's because there's really nothing Hoke can add to the conversation at this point or because it seems like his exit is inevitable at this point. Having a prime-time game with another storied opponent helps steer the conversation away from Hoke and embattled athletic director Dave Brandon as well, but expect that to just be a momentary reprieve if the Wolverines can't right the ship under the lights against Penn State. If Michigan falls to 2-5 heading into an off date with Michigan State looming, the scrutiny will return -- and probably reach record-setting levels.

3. Double-bye blues: Urban Meyer has made it pretty well known that he's not enjoying the extra weekend off this season, particularly with Ohio State building momentum with its young offense and eager to keep the ball rolling after blowing out Maryland on the road. It surely doesn't help that the Buckeyes just had an off date two weeks ago, which in some ways has disrupted the normal in-season practice routine and forced Meyer to get a bit more creative with how he handles reps and when to return to the field before next week's game against Rutgers. The double-bye season also contributes to a relatively light schedule in the league for Week 7, with Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska all resting on Saturday as well. In fact, the next three weekends all feature four teams kicking up their feet. With two fewer Big Ten football games to watch, count me with Meyer as no fan of the scheduling model this season either.

East Division
  • Michigan is still comfortable with the depth it has on hand at running back despite losing Derrick Green to injury.
  • Michigan State has another weapon emerging at wide receiver.
  • Penn State has attacked practice with a greater sense of urgency after losing handily to Northwestern.
  • Rutgers wrapped up its 2016 schedule by inking a deal with New Mexico.
  • Even after losing its first Big Ten home game, Maryland can still see the benefits of joining the league.
  • Urban Meyer wasn't quite sure who he voted No. 1 after a wild weekend in college football, but he thinks it was Florida State.
  • A look at what makes at the Indiana job so difficult.
West Division
  • Some Nebraska legends like what they see from De'Mornay Pierson-El.
  • Another scheduling tweak for 2016: Iowa's visit to Rutgers was moved up. The Hawkeyes will open Big Ten play on the road five years in a row.
  • Can Northwestern continue to improve on offense?
  • Minnesota will likely be without starting cornerback Derrick Wells on Saturday.
  • Statistics don't paint a pretty picture for the Illinois defense.
  • Is there more that Melvin Gordon could possibly do to help Wisconsin? Evidently he thinks there is.
  • The Purdue secondary is preparing for a big test against Michigan State.

Big Ten morning links

August, 11, 2014
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(Welcome to a new incarnation of the links, which have expanded and moved from lunchtime to the morning. With our apologies to Buster Olney).

With a little more than a week of preseason practice in the books at most Big Ten campuses, it's too early to say which teams are having the best August so far. But we can definitely point to the team that had the toughest opening week-plus in the league: Nebraska.

In a three-day period, the Cornhuskers lost three potential starters on defense. First, projected starting nickel back Charles Jackson went down with a season-ending knee injury. The nickel position has grown in stature with the rise of spread offenses, and Ciante Evans showed how important it can be in Nebraska's system the past couple of years.

A day after Jackson's injury, coach Bo Pelini announced that safety LeRoy Alexander, who was battling for a starting job, would be suspended for the season. Then on Friday night, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey informed the world via Instagram -- and later confirmed by Pelini -- that he would miss the season with a torn ACL.

Ouch.

Much of the optimism around Nebraska this season stemmed from what fans saw as potentially the best defense under Pelini during the Huskers' run in the Big Ten. The offense has a lot of potential, especially if quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. can step forward. But defensive breakdowns have haunted Big Red in some of their biggest Big Ten games.

Rose-Ivey, who appeared to be really improving, is probably the easiest to replace, as defensive coordinator John Papuchis has a deep well of linebackers to call upon. Josh Banderas likely takes over his spot.

It's a little murkier in the secondary, where junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell now likely takes on an even larger role, and Nathan Gerry -- who played linebacker as a freshman in 2013 -- must make the adjustment to safety.

The Lincoln Journal Star's Steven M. Sipple remains optimistic about the Nebraska defense despite the injuries.
"There's been predictable overreaction," Sipple writes. "But to say the three losses have decimated Nebraska's defense would be a significant overstatement. I spoke with Pelini late Saturday afternoon. As one might expect, he retained confidence. He said there was no reason to start holding anything back schematically. All systems go, he said.

"The Huskers still look excellent in the front seven and possess better-than-decent overall talent and depth in the secondary, but a handful of newcomers will have to step up quickly."

These injuries shouldn't make or break the Huskers' season. Pelini has built depth on that side of the ball. But that depth has taken a shot to its broad side, and Nebraska needs good health the rest of training camp or else some of that early optimism could start to fade.

Depth chart stuff
  • This has the makings of a potentially incredible story: Tom Hruby, a 32-year-old active Navy SEAL, is trying to walk on to Northwestern's team as a defensive end, Seth Gruen writes.
"I don’t feel like where I’m at today is some outstanding or amazing thing," Hruby told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It’s just more of a challenging route ... the way I kind of think about finding and accepting and trying to take on these challenges that most people would probably say are impossible, one, or very unlikely or just plain dumb."
Bumps and bruises
Weekend scrimmages
West Division
East Division

Preseason position preview: DB

July, 23, 2014
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Our preview of each position group in the Big Ten reaches its final stop on the defensive side: the secondary.

The two best secondary players from last season both were drafted in the first round this spring: Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. New stars are sure to emerge this season. Let's take a look at where things stand:

Best of the best: Michigan State

The Spartans finished No. 3 in the FBS in pass defense last season, though the "No Fly Zone" lost two key members in Thorpe Award winner Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis. Still, Kurtis Drummond might well be the best safety in the Big Ten, and Trae Waynes is ready for his star turn at cornerback. Darian Hicks will hold down the other corner spot, with a spirited competition for time at the other safety slot. With the combined brain power of Mark Dantonio, Pat Narduzzi and Harlon Barnett, we expect Michigan State to keep the title of the league's top secondary.

Next up: Penn State

There's lots of strong returning experience here, with corners Jordan Lucas -- a leading All-Big Ten candidate -- and Trevor Williams, plus safety Adrian Amos, who appears on the cusp of stardom. Ryan Keiser started five games at safety last year, too. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's background is in coaching the secondary, so we're excited to see what he can do with this group.

Sleeper: Minnesota

Safety Brock Vereen is on the Chicago Bears now, but underrated corner Eric Murray is back along with veteran safety Cedric Thompson. Derrick Wells, who has bounced between safety and corner, should stick at the other cornerback spot, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun returns from injury. The Gophers believe they are as deep as they've been in the secondary under Jerry Kill, and that could lead to good results this fall.

Problem for a contender: Ohio State

It's hard to label this as anything but a problem right now, given how the Buckeyes struggled down the stretch in pass coverage last year before losing Roby a year early to the draft. Yet there is still a lot of reason for optimism. New secondary coach/co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash is remaking the unit into what should be a more athletic bunch. Doran Grant anchors the group at corner, while Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell should add speed and length at safety. If young players come through here, Ohio State's defensive backfield could make a huge leap forward. Until we see that happen, though, it remains a concern.
It goes against the offensive lineman's credo to crave attention. Despite his size, he would rather go undetected, often a strong indicator that he's doing his job well.

Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosies' offensive line
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsIndiana's offensive line has quietly become one of the premier units in the Big Ten.
Let's be as clear as possible: Indiana's offensive line is the most underrated unit in the Big Ten.

You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.

But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.

"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."

Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.

Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.

"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."

Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.

It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.

Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.

"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.

"We have more voices there who are respected."

But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.

"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.

"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."

Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...

Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.

Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.

Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.

Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.
Minnesota had a grand total of one defensive player drafted between 2009 and 2013. Earlier this month, the Gophers had two defenders, tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen, selected in the first four rounds.

[+] EnlargeTracy Claeys
AP Photo/Al GoldisMinnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said he'll be disappointed if the Gophers don't improve on defense in 2014.
Those departures would would suggest some type of a drop off for Minnesota's defense, but coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks it will be just the opposite in 2014. In Claeys' mind, the Gophers are just getting started.

"We should be better than we were a year ago," Claeys told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We've improved every year we've been there, and I'll be disappointed if we don't improve more. We have the talent and the kids that want to put in the work.

"I'm excited about this coming fall."

Minnesota won't have a player with Hageman's freakish frame and ability, or Vereen's versatility to play both secondary positions at an All-Big Ten level. But the unit's overall depth should improve. Perhaps more important, Claeys and his staff are no longer newcomers.

The foundation is in place. The defense improved from 93rd in scoring defense in 2011 to 45th in 2012 and 25th last season. It was extremely salty in the red zone, allowing just 26 touchdowns on 52 opponent trips inside the 20-yard line.

These days, Claeys and his staff are enhancing their system rather than teaching it.

"It's not what you know as a coach; it's what those kids know," he said. "It's nice to be going into our fourth year and have a system in place to where a lot of the kids, they know those adjustments already. With knowledge comes confidence, and to be good on defense nowadays with all the spread stuff and the hurry-ups, you have to be confident."

Although Vereen started games at both safety and cornerback last season, Claeys expects the secondary to be Minnesota's strongest group in 2014. Cornerback Eric Murray has All-Big Ten potential, and Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun both are playmakers who will be healthy by the start of fall camp. Boddy-Calhoun started the first two games at cornerback last fall before tearing his ACL, and Wells, who had 10 pass breakups and two interceptions in 2012, battled injuries all season.

Safety Cedric Thompson has emerged as the leader of the defense after learning alongside Vereen. Antonio Johnson, who had 69 tackles in 2013, also returns at safety.

Claeys also has high hopes for the linebackers. Although only one starter is back in Damien Wilson, De'Vondre Campbell logged significant time last season and Jack Lynn should have a greater role following a strong spring. Wilson, a junior-college transfer who led Minnesota with 79 tackles in 2013, is taking charge of the group.

"We need Damien to step up into more of a leadership role," Claeys said. "That's one thing that's hard on junior-college kids, the leadership in their first year. I think he'll be better at that."

Minnesota has reached consecutive bowl games and held its own in Big Ten play last season. To continue the trajectory, the Gophers must navigate a challenging schedule, establish more balance on offense through the passing game and keep the pedal down on defense.

Claeys doesn't expect his unit to let up despite the two big pieces it loses.

"I'll be disappointed," he said, "if we don't play better than we did a year ago."
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
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Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Ian Thomas, Corey Cooper, Antoine Lewis, Mark Murphy, Jeremiah Johnson, Dezmen Southward, B.J. Lowery, Kurtis Drummond, Ibraheim Campbell, Peniel Jean, Doran Grant, Raymon Taylor, Tejay Johnson, Nick VanHoose, Blake Countess, Michael Hunter, Derrick Wells, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Adrian Amos, Charles Jackson, Frankie Williams, Nate Hammon, Cedric Thompson, Tanner Miller, Dwight White, Harvey Jackson, Armani Reeves, Malik Golden, John Lowdermilk, Andrew Green, Darius Hillary, Traveon Henry, Daniel Jones, Demetrious Cox, Jermaine Edmonson, Ezra Robinson, Trevor Williams, Daniel Davie, Taylor Richards, Jarrod Wilson, RJ Williamson, Trae Waynes, Landon Feichter, Lorenzo Waters, Cam Burrows, Gareon Conley, Dymonte Thomas, Jesse Della Valle, Darius Mosely, Darian Hicks, Josh Mitchell, Eaton Spence, Antonio Allen, Zane Petty, Rashard Fant, Godwin Igwebuike, Sojourn Shelton, Nadir Barnwell, Matt Harris, Michael Caputo, Jonathan Rose, V'Angelo Bentley, Jevaris Little, Taylor Barton, Tyvis Powell, Arjen Colquhoun, Eric Murray, Sean Draper, Anthony Gair, Tim Bennett, Jabrill Peppers, Ryan Keiser, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Austin Hudson, Jaylen Dunlap, Charlton Warren, Serge Trezy, B1G spring positions 14, Sean Davis, Anthony Nixon, A.J. Hendy, Zach Dancel, Dexter McDougle, Will Likely, Alvin Hill, Antonio Johnson, Grayson Levine, Ron Tanner, Leroy Clark, Johnathan Aiken, Delon Stephenson, Gareef Glashen, Anthony Cioffi

Season report card: Minnesota

December, 23, 2013
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The red pens are out and we're handing out final grades for each Big Ten team's regular season. Teams earn marks for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Step up and get your grades, Minnesota.

Offense: C-minus

The Gophers ranked just 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.4 ppg) and 11th in total offense. Their passing attack was the worst in the league and one of the least productive in the nation. The team juggled quarterbacks during the first half of the season, flipping between Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner, both of whom proved better runners than passers most of the time. Receiver was once again a sore spot for Minnesota, particularly after Derrick Engel hurt his knee in November. Freshmen Maxx Williams, Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise but also showed they were freshmen. An inability to move the ball through the air effectively killed the team's chances of winning its final two games against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the Gophers definitely had an offensive identity. They became the physical, run-first team that they previewed in the Texas Bowl last season. Junior David Cobb came out of nowhere to rush for 1,111 yards, sixth most in the Big Ten. Minnesota's offensive line paved the way for 200 rushing yards per game. Though limited in options, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover maximized his strengths by pounding the ball on the ground and controlling the clock.

The offense was at its best against Nebraska and Indiana, when Minnesota scored a combined 76 points in those two games. But the lack of a legitimate passing game remains a concern going forward.

Defense: B

Minnesota had one of the more underrated defenses in the Big Ten. Opponents managed just 22.3 points per game. The defense struggled early in league play against Iowa and Michigan but got much better as the season went on. In the final three games, Minnesota held Penn State to 10 points, Wisconsin to 20 and Michigan State to 14 -- all well below those teams' averages.

Ra'Shede Hageman developed into the star many expected at defensive tackle. The attention he commanded up the middle cleared the way for Theiren Cockran to register 7.5 sacks, second best in the league. The secondary was a strength again, thanks to the play of Brock Vereen, Eric Murray and, when healthy, Derrick Wells. That Tracy Claeys managed to keep this defense above average while also serving as interim head coach was an impressive feat.

Special teams: B-plus

Minnesota was mostly better than league average on special teams. The Gophers ranked fourth on kickoff returns, fifth in punt returns, seventh in punting and fifth in kickoff coverage. Peter Mortell finished third in punting average, while Marcus Jones was third in kickoff returns. Chris Hawthorne was the Big Ten special teams player of the week after making a pair of field goals against Nebraska.

Overall: A

While the individual categories might not necessarily add up to an A, Minnesota was a perfect example of a collective whole ending up greater than its parts. The season could have easily come apart after head coach Jerry Kill took his leave of absence to deal with epilepsy after missing the Michigan game. Instead, the team bonded together and won its next four Big Ten games, something that hadn't happened in the previous 40 years. Kill talked about needing to need a notch a signature league victory this season, and the Gophers responded by beating Nebraska and Penn State. The team even entered the Top 25 in November after reaching 8-2. Losing the last two games was a minor bummer, but few people expected Minnesota to win eight games this season, especially given Kill's situation. The efforts and achievements this season deserve an A.

Eric Murray manning up for Minnesota

November, 20, 2013
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Any credible list of the Big Ten's best cornerbacks starts with Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, moves on to Ohio State's Bradley Roby and then typically branches off in several directions.

Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste would appear third on some ballots, as would Michigan's Blake Countess, Iowa's B.J. Lowery and Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Wisconsin freshman Sojourn Shelton also is getting noticed for his recent play.

One name no one's talking about is Eric Murray, although Minnesota's coaches could filibuster for days about the sophomore cornerback. Murray's problem: Unlike the other aforementioned corners, he has yet to intercept a pass this season. Interceptions equal attention, especially the pick-six variety.

[+] EnlargeEric Murray
Zumapress/Icon SMIEric Murray has hounded receivers such as Penn State's Allen Robinson throughout the Big Ten season.
The irony is that Murray's lack of picks can be attributed, at least in part, to how much confidence the coaches have in his game.

"He doesn't play a lot of zone," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com "He's pretty much a man-to-man guy, and a lot of it's press-man. It's hard to get a lot of interceptions when you play as much press-man as he does.

"But we feel like he can get people stopped when we need to get 'em stopped."

It's why Minnesota often has Murray mark the opponent's top pass-catching threat. He has lined up across from Penn State's Allen Robinson, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Indiana's Cody Latimer, Northwestern's Tony Jones, Nebraska's Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, and San Jose State's Chandler Jones, the nation's No. 7 wideout. The 6-foot, 194-pound Murray has the length to defend bigger receivers and the speed to pace smaller ones.

Every receiver struggled to match his typical production against Murray, whose next assignment is Wisconsin star Jared Abbrederis on Saturday, when the 19th-ranked Badgers visit No. 25 Minnesota in the most anticipated Axe game in years.

Robinson, the Big Ten's top wideout, was targeted five times with Murray guarding him and recorded just two receptions for 18 yards. Enunwa didn't record any receptions in the nine plays he went against Murray.

"Our staff, we think Darqueze Dennard's the best corner in this conference," Sawvel said. "I know Roby gets a lot of publicity, and we think he's really good, too.

"But outside of those two, we wouldn’t trade Eric for anybody in the conference."

After playing mostly special teams as a freshman in 2012 -- cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire started every game -- Murray had a strong offseason, leaving Sawvel optimistic about his potential for this fall.

Still, Sawvel wondered how the young cornerback would handle failure, and how often he would fail. The answer came Oct. 26 against Nebraska. On the fifth play from scrimmage, Bell beat Murray on a post for 42 yards to the Minnesota 2-yard line, setting up a touchdown.

"His reaction when he came back to the sideline was, 'I'm gonna kick his ass the rest of the game,'" Sawvel said. "It was not, 'Boy, he's tough to cover.' It wasn’t any of that. There was no self-doubt. He was mad about it, but he was like, 'I got this.' And he did."

Nebraska targeted Bell three more times with Murray on him but completed zero passes, as Minnesota rallied for a 34-23 win.

"Whoever's in front of me, it doesn't matter," Murray said. "I just have to be comfortable in myself. If you think negative, negative things will happen."

Murray's positive outlook and drive helped him get to the Big Ten despite being largely overlooked in recruiting. After Murray's junior year at Milwaukee's Riverside University High School, his coach took him to three camps -- Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. Murray worked mostly as a receiver during the Gophers' camp, but head coach Jerry Kill wanted to see if his athleticism translated better at corner.

Days later, Murray returned to Minnesota for a second camp, where he worked one-on-one with Sawvel for 2 1/2 hours.

"Sometimes you get fortunate in recruiting," Kill said. "You've got to go with what you see."

The coaches liked what they saw then, and what they continue to see from Murray.

"Sometimes you have to motivate people to go to work, but not him," Kill said. "He loves playing football, and he takes what he does very seriously.

"He's one of those kids who really tries to master his craft."

Murray spends at least 30 minutes a day watching film of opposing receivers, charting their tendencies and the routes they most often run. He prefers man coverage to zone, where a cornerback must expand his vision rather than simply shadow the receiver.

Murray also watches other cornerbacks, like Dennard, a potential first-round draft pick who plays in an aggressive scheme where the corners are left to fend for themselves. Minnesota uses its corners similarly.

"He presses a lot, and I feel like that's more of my style," Murray said. "I would rather press more than anything."

Even if it means fewer interception opportunities. Murray has come close, as he came down out of bounds following a pick against UNLV and had an end zone interception against Penn State nullified by an offsides penalty.

"I really don't mind it," he said. "As long as my guy doesn't catch the ball, I'm all right. It'll feel really good to get my first one, but I'm not putting too much pressure on myself."

Instead, he'll keep pressuring his opponents. Next up is Abbrederis, whom Sawvel calls "the biggest challenge in the conference.

Murray won't be the only Gophers defensive back dealing with Abbrederis, but the two will see plenty of one another.

"You've got to match strength with strength," Sawvel said. "Where Darqueze Dennard and those people are, that's what Eric Murray will be in the next year or two.

"This is a guy who's going to be as good as it gets in this conference."

Leidner illness affects Gophers' QBs

October, 22, 2013
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Who will start at quarterback for Minnesota on Saturday against Nebraska? It might come down to health.

Acting head coach Tracy Claeys said Tuesday that Mitch Leidner is battling an illness and is taking medication. Because of that, Claeys is delaying his decision on whether Leidner or Philip Nelson will start on Saturday versus the Huskers.

The two quarterbacks have split starts this season, with Leidner getting the nod the past two games. Nelson came on in relief and had the better performance in the Gophers' 20-17 win at Northwestern last week. Claeys said that Minnesota needs both quarterbacks because they like to run the ball from that position so much, but he doesn't know yet how Leidner will recover from his illness.

Claeys also said that he expects coach Jerry Kill to attend the Nebraska game and be in the press box. Kill, who is on a medical leave of absence, surprised the team by making the Northwestern trip and gave the players an inspirational talk. Kill may also spend some time at practice this week.

"We'll take whatever he can give us," Claeys said.

Claeys also said that safety Brock Vereen would practice at cornerback this week and could play the position on Saturday if normal starter Derrick Wells (shoulder) isn't able to go.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
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The constant talk about the Big Ten's national perception and performance against other conferences can get a bit tiresome.

But there's also no denying that the league has an image problem that stems from a lack of noteworthy wins. And with nonconference play all but wrapped up (three nonleague games remain -- Illinois versus Miami (Ohio) and Purdue versus Northern Illinois this week, and BYU at Wisconsin in November), we can make a few judgments.

[+] EnlargeKevonte Martin-Manley
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns in the Hawkeyes' rout of Western Michigan.
The good news is that there weren't many total embarrassments, though Michigan certainly flirted with a couple the past two weeks. The not-so-good news: The Big Ten finished an underwhelming 9-8 against BCS AQ teams. That record is even less impressive when you consider the caliber of the competition.

The best win remains Michigan's Week 2 triumph over Notre Dame, which is the conference's only victory over a ranked opponent for now. Other BCS AQ scalps include California (twice), Cincinnati, Connecticut, Iowa State, South Florida and Syracuse (twice). The losses were to Arizona State (allegedly), Cincinnati, Notre Dame (twice), Missouri, UCF, UCLA and Washington.

The Big Ten went 3-2 against the AAC, 2-0 against the ACC (Syracuse), 1-0 against the Big 12 (Iowa State), 2-3 against the Pac-12, 0-1 against the SEC (Missouri) and 1-2 against Notre Dame. As you can tell, the league didn't exactly play the cream of the crop in the ACC, Big 12 or SEC. The Big Ten's slate was low on marquee games, and the conference didn't win any of the ones that were there, save for going 1-for-3 against what looks like a decent but not great Notre Dame team.

Luckily, conference play is almost here, and that will consume us for the next couple of months. But if the Big Ten wants to earn more respect nationally, it will have to wait until bowl season for another shot.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team(s) of the week: It's a tie between Iowa and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes beat Western Michigan 59-3 in their most complete performance in ages, while the Gophers dismantled San Jose State and its NFL-caliber quarterback 43-24. Bring on Floyd of Rosedale!

Worst hangover: Michigan State hoped that maybe, just maybe, it had found a solution to its passing game woes when Connor Cook and the offense rolled against Youngstown State two weeks ago. Instead, the Spartans' passing game looked just as bad as last year in a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame. And the quarterback controversy is not even over, as coach Mark Dantonio strangely went with Andrew Maxwell on Michigan State's final possession -- which unfolded just as you would have expected, with three incomplete passes, two penalties and a Maxwell scramble that came up far short of the first-down marker on fourth-and-long.

The Spartans also killed the small momentum they had going in the second half by calling for a halfback pass from R.J. Shelton, who threw an interception into tight coverage. Apparently, Michigan State failed to learn from its rival last year, but how about everyone in the Big Ten agree not to call halfback passes in South Bend for a while? Dantonio said he made the Shelton pass call, and he likes to name his trick plays after kids' movies. Call that one "The NeverEnding Story," because that's what MSU's offensive disaster has become.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner made his first career start in place of the injured Philip Nelson, and he didn't disappoint. Leidner ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder showed off some speed when going around the edge and lots of toughness as he continually pushed forward for more yards after first contact.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery had a pair of pick-sixes against Western Michigan.

Big Man on Campus (Special Teams): This one's an easy call: Iowa's Kevonte Martin-Manley returned a pair of punts for touchdowns in the second quarter, piling up 184 total punt return yards. He became the third Big Ten player to have two punt return touchdowns in the same game and the first since 1983 (Ohio State’s Garcia Lane).

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information): Your new Big Ten leader in Total QBR: Ohio State's Kenny Guiton, who's No. 10 nationally with an 86.7 rating (based on a 100-point scale). A fan asked on Twitter on Saturday night whether the Buckeyes' Guiton and Braxton Miller might be the best two quarterbacks in the league. A strong case could be made for that. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon leads the nation in rushing with 624 yards. What's crazy is that the No. 2 rusher, Rutgers' Paul James, trails Gordon by 51 yards and has 25 more carries on the season. Gordon is still averaging just over 13 rushes per game. ... Michigan State in a nutshell: The Spartans rank third nationally in total expected points added by the defense at 74.32; the offense, meanwhile, has contributed negative-six expected points added. ... Four Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Nebraska) rank among the top five in the FBS in rushing yards. Five league teams (Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State) rank in the top 10 in number of total rush attempts, with the Hawkeyes leading the way at 218 (third nationally). ... Problem not solved: Nebraska has fumbled eight times this year, more than every team except Idaho. The only good news is that the Huskers have lost only four of them. ... Penn State's defense has allowed only 12.8 first downs per game, ranking fourth in the FBS, just behind Michigan State. ... An overlooked part of Minnesota's early success: Gophers opponents have started their possessions inside their own 25-yard line after a kickoff 17 times this season, the most in the nation. Thank kicker Chris Hawthorne and the coverage unit for that. By comparison, Michigan's opponents have started a drive after a kickoff inside their 25-yard line just five times this season.

Stern discipline: Five days after the Pac-12 reprimanded the officials who botched the ending of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game and promised "additional sanctions" for that crew, the same group worked the Utah-BYU game on Saturday night. Yep, that's some punishment, having those officials call an intense in-state rivalry featuring a Pac-12 team on the road. BYU fans didn't like the calls that went against their team in the 20-13 Utes win and pelted the officials with trash after they left the field. That was deplorable by those fans, but as far as we can tell, it was the only real punishment those refs received. The Pac-12 refs aren't the only ones who mess up, though. That was a Big Ten unit hosing Michigan State on those pass interference calls at Notre Dame.

Strangest moment(s): San Jose State's Harrison Waid tried to get revenge for battered punters everywhere after he got pancaked on a block by Minnesota's Derrick Wells. Waid hopped up and tried to go after Wells. Alas, that's a battle a punter will never win, and he got ejected from the game. Yes, a punter was kicked out for fighting.

Meanwhile in Columbus ... as if Ohio State needed any extra help against Florida A&M, running back Jordan Hall used umpire Jim Krogstad as a blocker and then a bowling pin on his way to a touchdown. Maybe FAMU could let Krogstad wet his beak on some of the $900,000 Ohio State paid the school for that 76-0 steamrolling.

Say what?: Remember when Penn State coach Bill O'Brien called his team a bunch of "fighters" on national TV at the end of last year's Wisconsin finale, but several people thought he said a different "F" word? Well, O'Brien appeared to almost use another "F" word during his postgame news conference Saturday before catching himself. O'Brien was then asked if he was going to say "fighters" again. "We do have a bunch of fighters," he said. "I don't know anyone who debates me on that. It's like my mom -- she still doesn't believe I said 'fighters.' Do I look like the type of guy who swears?"

Big Ten lunch links

August, 26, 2013
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It's game week, people. You ready for some football?

Let's get linky ...

Big Ten lunch links

August, 14, 2013
8/14/13
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Happy hump day. Do you believe the season is barely two weeks away? Fired up.

Link time ...

Q&A: Minnesota DC Tracy Claeys

July, 16, 2013
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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?

[+] EnlargeDerrick Wells
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Wells will move to cornerback this season for the Gophers.
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.

You've got three experienced senior starters in Brock Vereen, Aaron Hill and Ra'Shede Hageman. Are they your obvious leaders, or have others emerged?

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.
The week-long barrage of preseason watch lists reached its conclusion on Friday with the release of the Jim Thorpe Award nominees (don't worry, though; there will be more lists next week!).

The Thorpe Award goes to the nation's best defensive back, and the good people on the Thorpe committee must really like this year's class of secondary stars because they put 48 (!) on the preseason list. That includes eight players from the Big Ten, which ties for the most among any conference.

They are:
The expectations are certainly high for Ohio State's defensive backfield, as three of the four starters made the Thorpe list. Roby has a legitimate shot of winning this award and told me this spring that he's aiming for it. Dennard will challenge him for the title of best cornerback in the Big Ten. The others here are excellent players as well, though I think Roby and Dennard represent the league's best chance at this trophy. Kind of surprised not to see Minnesota's Brock Vereen or Derrick Wells or Michigan's Blake Countess and Thomas Gordon here, but I guess that means they'll have to make themselves more well known this year.

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