NCF Nation: Jay Sawvel

Brock VereenAP Photo/Paul BattagliaThanks to a solid 2012 season, Brock Vereen has excelled as a starting safety for the Gophers.
Anyone could see that Minnesota's secondary took a major step in 2012, helping the defense finish 12th nationally in pass yards allowed and 23rd in pass efficiency.

But could anyone identify the most invaluable piece of the Gophers' back four? Probably not.

The natural inclination is to pick one of the cornerbacks, Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, both of whom earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors (Carter should have been a second-team selection). Safety Derrick Wells put up impressive numbers (74 tackles, two interceptions, 10 pass breakups, one fumble recovered) in his first season as the starter.

But any of those players would be the wrong answer.

"Yeah, we had Troy Stoudermire, yeah, we had Michael Carter, and Michael Carter had a really good year," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told "But Brock was the most valuable of all our DBs last year. ... Just from a calming influence, from maturity, from a steadiness of play.

"When he wasn't out there, we weren't the same."

Sawvel can't stop raving about Brock Vereen, the Gophers' senior safety who started seven games last season (including each of the final six) and recorded 64 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Although Minnesota must replace both Carter and Stoudermire this season, Vereen is back to anchor the secondary and the defense, which loses two starting linebackers and top pass rusher DL Wilhite.

"I need to step up and accept that leadership role," Vereen said. "That comes with confidence. It's definitely been a focus this spring. I've never been a vocal leader, so that aspect is something new, but I've always felt comfortable having guys look up to me.

"I know that I need to talk more, but at the same time, I also know some of the younger guys can learn just by watching me."

Vereen can educate Minnesota's young safeties and cornerbacks because he has played both positions for the Gophers. He spent his first two seasons at cornerback, starting four games in 2010 and all 12 as a sophomore the following year.

The 6-foot, 202-pound Vereen immediately bought in to Sawvel and the coaching staff that arrived with Jerry Kill after the 2010 season. He told Sawvel he wished he had been redshirted in 2010, as he had received little guidance as a true freshman.

"His first thing was, 'I can't wait to be coached. I can't wait to learn what a new staff is going to do,'" Sawvel said.

Vereen had a strong finish to the 2011 campaign, limiting talented receivers like Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis (two catches, 27 yards) and Illinois' A.J. Jenkins (four catches, 30 yards). In hindsight, Sawvel wished he had flipped Vereen from side to side rather than leaving him in one spot because he evolved into Minnesota's top cover corner.

But after the season, the coaches moved Vereen to safety. They had brought in several cornerbacks through recruiting, and Sawvel saw a higher ceiling for vereen at safety.

"He doesn’t have the hips of an elite corner," Sawvel said. "That doesn't mean he couldn’t play it. He could or play it on a short-term basis, but by the same token, he's extremely smart and he's a physical guy. We thought with his skill set, he has a better chance to become an elite safety."

[+] EnlargeBrock Vereen
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBrock Vereen is in a football family, parents who travel to his games and a brother who plays for the New England Patriots.
The coaches appear to be on the right track. Vereen sat out last spring with an injury and began the season as a reserve safety, in part because Sawvel knew Vereen was mature enough to handle coming off of the bench.

The turning point came in Week 4 against Syracuse, when Vereen and the defense shut down Ryan Nassib and the Syracuse offense in a 17-10 victory.

"After that game, it was clear," Sawvel said. "It was like, 'Brock's the starter. He needs to be on the field all the time.'"

More like all over the field. Vereen can cover slot receivers, square up running backs in the hole and even play a nickel safety/linebacker hybrid role, like he did against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, when he led Minnesota with 10 tackles.

"Somebody asked me, 'What is he? Is he a strong safety? Is he a free safety?'" Sawvel said. "He's a field safety. That allows him to cover people a lot. But when we played Michigan State, they're lining up in two-back and he plays a really good game, and there’s several times where we get the ball bounced to him, and it's him and [running back] Le'Veon Bell and he won all of them.

"That's a big luxury to have, that you have a guy who can do that much."

A native of Valencia, Calif., Vereen wanted "something new" for his college experience. His older brother, Shane, had starred for Cal at running back, and Brock drew interest from several Pac-12 schools in recruiting. He ended up picking his farthest suitor, Minnesota.

Although Vereen has family ties in the Midwest -- grandparents in Illinois, cousins in Indiana, an uncle living minutes away from Minnesota's campus -- life in Minneapolis provided a bit of a shock.

"I've never been more homesick than that first winter," Vereen said. "That definitely was something I needed to adjust to. But it's been great."

Vereen's parents, Venita and Henry, spend every fall and winter weekend on the road, attending their sons' games. Typically, one watches Brock with Minnesota and the other watches Shane play for the New England Patriots. If there's enough time between the two games, they'll attend both.

"I don’t know how they do it, home and away," Brock said. "They have their little system worked out, and I just love 'em for it, all of their sacrifices for me."

Brock attends any of Shane's games that he can -- it helps that the Patriots are a perennial playoff team -- and Shane spends his bye weekend at a Gophers game. The two brothers talk daily, often about football, and Brock keeps close tabs on his brother.

"When I was in high school and he was in college, he was at the level I wanted to get to, so I wanted to know everything he did," Brock said. "And it's the same situation now. I've learned not necessarily from him telling, but just from watching him. That goes back to when we were kids. I've always been very observant of him. He's been very successful in everything that he’s done, so I've been trying to do what he did to get to the level he's at."

Sawvel thinks Brock Vereen has NFL potential, although he'll need to "put out more good video" as a senior.

If NFL talent evaluators see what Minnesota's coaches do in Vereen, he could follow his brother's path a year from now.

"He's just very valuable to us," Sawvel said. "He really is."
During rare moments of free time, Troy Stoudermire thinks about all he has been through at Minnesota.

He set the team single-season record for kick return yards as a true freshman ... he moved from cornerback to wide receiver midway through the season ... he caught 26 passes for 306 yards as a sophomore ... he switched back to cornerback for his junior year ... he was suspended in September of his junior year and posted on Facebook that he wanted to transfer before deciding to stay days later ... he set team's career kick return yards record later that year ... he emerged as a playmaker the following spring for a new coaching staff ... he set the Big Ten career kick return yards record in the 2011 opener ... he started the first four games at cornerback before suffering a broken bone in his forearm that ended his season ... he waited to hear if his college career was over.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireTroy Stoudermire will join Jerry Kill and the Gophers for a sixth season.
"I've definitely thought about it," Stoudermire recently told, "but I try to leave that in the past and just look at the future."

The time for reflection hasn't come for Stoudermire. It could have, if Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel had different news when he called Stoudermire on a Friday in January.

Stoudermire had applied to the Big Ten for a medical hardship waiver for 2011, which would give him one more season of eligibility. Applications for hardship waivers or sixth years of eligibility can go either way. Stoudermire's teammate Kim Royston got good news last January, while Purdue wide receiver Keith Smith was denied a sixth year. It's a crap shoot.

"I was very anxious," Stoudermire said. "I was actually in Dallas at home with my mom, just waiting for the call, waiting for my coach to let me know something. I was calling him every week to see what the status was. He was telling me they hadn't gotten back to him."

Stoudermire initially had been optimistic about his request, but he began to wonder whether he had played too many games in the 2011 season to qualify. He called Royston, who told him to be patient.

The call finally came Jan. 13, and with it, relief.

"I had nothing to say," Stoudermire said. "I was just super excited."

Stoudermire said the good news has helped him relax and focus more on school and football. He has never felt healthier during his college career, which can be traced in part to the long layoff he had last season.

When Minnesota opens spring practice March 22, Stoudermire will lead the secondary.

"It's a blessing to get another chance to come back and play another year," he said. "Coming back this year is real big. I know the defense, I had a full spring and a few games to play at corner, and when I come back this year, I should be better."

Stoudermire stood out during spring practice in 2011, especially because of the big hits he delivered. Minnesota practiced at a frenzied pace, using two sets of offensive players against the defense to run as many plays as possible. Stoudermire embraced the accelerated practices, and when the games began in the fall, he felt the pace was actually slower.

Stoudermire started strong, recording 24 tackles, two interceptions, three tackles for loss and three pass breakups in the first four games. But then the injury surfaced in a loss to North Dakota State, and Minnesota struggled without him, finishing 11th in the league in pass-efficiency defense (148.8) and recording a league-low four interceptions.

In fact, Stoudermire's interceptions total led the team as only two others recorded picks.

Royston was one of few bright spots on defense, making the most of his sixth season with a team-high 123 tackles. Minnesota needs Stoudermire to take a similar path in 2012 and lead an unproven group of defensive backs.

Stoudermire welcomes the role, helping his teammates during captains' practices and winter workouts.

"All the guys look up to me and call me," he said. "I let them know everything on the field. I set up meetings. I'm definitely taking that leader role, and I'm proud to say I'm the leader of the DBs right now."

Not a bad title to add to a unique career.
As expected, new Minnesota coach Jerry Kill completed new staff with a familiar face.

Kill has hired Jay Sawvel as the team's defensive backs coach and special teams coordinator. Sawvel has served as an assistant for Kill for the last 10 years at both Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois.
“Jay is an outstanding coach and a tremendous recruiter,” Kill said in a statement. “He’s a relentless guy. He’s been with me a long time and that’s important.”

Kill also announced several other staff additions Thursday, including Eric Klein as strength and conditioning coach. Klein has worked under Kill for the last 17 years.

Sawvel is the seventh assistant Kill brought over from Northern Illinois.

Kill links much of his success to his core group of assistants, so it's no surprise that many of the aides are joining him in Minneapolis.