For a football player, position changes can be a delicate matter. They imply an imperfect fit, or perhaps a lack of success with the status quo. Sometimes there's a stigma attached.
Tracy Claeys doesn't want anything to taint the adjustment that Derrick Wells and Brock Vereen have made this season. So, Claeys said, don't think of their cornerback-to-safety rebirth as a position switch.
"Really, it's a promotion," the Gophers defensive coordinator said. "It's like at your office -- you do your job well, you get more responsibility. Well, they did so well at cornerback, we've given them more responsibility."
In fact, the Gophers have sort of put Wells and Vereen in charge of their defense, or at least everyone behind the line of scrimmage. In the Gophers defense, safeties are in charge of calling adjustments before the ball is snapped, a read-and-react duty that can make the difference between a busted play and a big one.
"Once they become a safety, really, they're a quarterback out there. They've got to get people lined up," Claeys said. "If there's motion, you've got to get people moved to where they're supposed to be. You have to be smart and quick."
Wells and Vereen are both, and those traits served them well as cornerbacks last season. Vereen, now a junior, earned a starting corner spot with a strong camp last fall, then became the Gophers' No. 1 pass-coverage option when Troy Stoudermire was injured in the third game of the season. Defending the Big Ten's best receivers was a lot to expect of a teenager (he turned 20 on Friday), but the Valencia, Calif., native finished the season with 67 tackles, fifth overall on the team, and he led the Gophers in pass breakups with seven.
Wells, then a true freshman, earned playing time in 11 Gophers games and made eight tackles. But he showed good instincts for the position "and we projected him as a very good corner [with] good speed and size," Claeys said. "But you try to move everybody closer to the ball if you can, so you get better athletes. If you recruit a defensive end, you hope he grows into a tackle. If you recruit a linebacker, you hope he grows into a defensive end. These guys, they're good corners, no doubt, but they're growing into safeties. And if you do that, at the end of it, you have a lot faster, more athletic defense."
Not to mention, in this case, plug a gaping hole. The Gophers were short on safeties last year, then lost their best one, Kim Royston, to graduation. Over the winter, recruiting was adding depth at cornerback -- the Gophers brought in three junior-college cornerbacks -- but coach Jerry Kill realized his best safeties might be already on his roster.
"They told me it would be the best thing for the team, and I was just looking for an opportunity to get on the field," said Wells, a 19-year-old from Lehigh Acres, Fla., just outside Fort Myers. "I gained a little weight, so they thought I fit the safety position a little better."
Wells put on 15 pounds in the weight room, and Vereen almost 20. Both are over 200 pounds now, ideal for a safety, particularly since they will have significant responsibilities on run defense, too. But the weight room wasn't the only place they had to spend extra time to make the switch.
"It was hard to learn the reads. You've got to stay in the film room, study your playbook," Wells said. "Every play, I'm calling something. I'm always calling for the DBs and the linebackers, and sometimes I have a call for the [defensive] end, too. I've only played cornerback, so it's a whole different thing."
"I wouldn't say it's easy. You have to make all the calls and communicate," Kill said. "We're fortunate that Derrick and Brock are very gifted kids -- they've been able to pick it up, so that makes us look good."
But the calls are only half of the job.
"The other big challenge is, can they tackle? Sometimes at corner, you can get away with a good athlete who's maybe not your best tackler, because he can cover a lot," Claeys said. "These guys proved they can tackle last year. ... You never know how a switch will work out, but I was excited right from the start to see how they do. They've done really well so far."