- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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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."
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.
596dAdam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett