The Gophers have several question marks on defense after two weeks of spring practice, but Derrick Wells isn’t one of them, even after switching positions.
As a sophomore safety last season, Wells dealt with a severe knee laceration and still made 74 tackles, tied for third most on the team.
This spring, he’s making a seamless transition to cornerback, a position where the Gophers are trying to replace two outgoing seniors in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire.
The Gophers opened the spring by saying Wells would play both cornerback and safety, but through six practices, it’s been all cornerback.
“He’s not going back; he’s going to play corner,” Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel said Saturday.
For one thing, the Gophers think Wells is pretty good at cornerback with his 6-0, 206-pound frame and strong coverage skills.
“He’s got size, he’s got intelligence, he makes us better at that position,” Sawvel said. “He keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll make money at it.”
The move also helps the rest of the secondary. The Gophers still like their depth at safety with Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson, Damarius Travis and Antonio Johnson.
The coaching staff approached Wells about the move after the bowl game loss to Texas Tech. He had played cornerback at Lehigh (Fla.) High School. And Wells saw the benefits health-wise, for his knee.
After suffering the laceration last season, he had to have the knee re-stitched multiple times. He played in all 13 games but didn’t start two. He still wears a long black sleeve on his right leg to protect his skin.
“I want to do what’s best for the team,” Wells said. “But moving to corner, it’ll take some pressure off my knee without all the contact in the middle, so I think that’ll help me out a lot too.”
With Wells at one corner, the other will come down to a battle between sophomore Eric Murray and three players who transferred from junior college last year — Martez Shabazz, Briean Boddy and Jeremy Baltazar.
Murray was getting reps with the first-team defense this week.
“Martez has maybe had a flashier play here and there, but Eric’s been the most consistent, so we’re just going to keep going with that,” Sawvel said.
Knowing Wells can play both positions gives the Gophers options against various offenses.
“This is a guy you can put as a nickel [fifth defensive back],” Sawvel said. “You can blitz him from different angles. You can play him as a high safety, you can spin your secondary a certain way because of what he’s doing.”
A defensive turnaround helped key the Gophers’ improvement to 6-7 last year from 3-9 in their first year under coach Jerry Kill. Now the team has to replace five starters on defense, including sack leader D.L. Wilhite, two linebackers and the two cornerbacks.
“I know we lost two secondary guys that were big for us, but I think the people that were behind them were ready to play last year,” Wells said. “So I think coming into the season, we’re going to be pretty good.”
In other news from Saturday’s practice:
• Jonah Pirsig, a redshirt freshman tackle from Blue Earth, went down because of an apparent knee injury. He was on crutches after practice.
• The Gophers had two more highly coveted recruits visit practice — Jeff Jones, a junior running back from Minneapolis Washburn, who has given the Gophers a verbal commitment for 2014, and Jashon Cornell, a sophomore defensive end from Cretin-Derham Hall, who has offers from the the Gophers, USC, Notre Dame and Florida.
• The Gophers have held a moment of silence before each practice honoring linebacker Gary Tinsley, who died with an enlarged heart April 6, 2012. On Saturday, linebacker Aaron Hill wore Tinsley’s No. 51 as a tribute on the one-year anniversary of his death.