Pressure cookers: U turns up heat on D

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2011 - 12:02 AM

The Gophers were last in the nation in sacks last season. The new defensive philosophy makes it paramount to crush or hurry the QB.

hide

Part of the philosophy of Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys: “You have to make the offense feel stressed.”

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

They are the most fortified 5 yards in football, the territory between the defensive line and a quarterback who's looking for a receiver. Take five seconds to fight through a wall of bodyguards, and a quarterback turns into Aaron Rodgers. But get there in three seconds, and he turns into Mr. Rogers.

So two seconds -- that's it. That's the difference between bottling up an offense and ... well, doing what the Gophers did last season.

"You'd be surprised what just a little bit more speed can do," said Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, whose primary task this fall is eliminating those two extra seconds. "How often do you see a guy arrive [at the quarterback] one step late? One step can change the game."

Sounds simple, and the Gophers have heard those lectures all fall. Ask defensive end D.L. Wilhite why Minnesota's pass rush was historically toothless last season -- the Gophers sacked the quarterback only nine times, fewer than any other team in Division I football -- and he says, "I guess we weren't running fast enough."

He's not joking, though. Under Jerry Kill's philosophy, speed is the most precious, irreplaceable commodity on a defense, and his coaching staff has dedicated itself to find and develop more of it. Summer workout programs didn't stop at weightlifting and strength training but were designed to make pass rushers as nimble as they are ferocious.

The speed of redshirt freshman Ben Perry helped him rise to the top of the depth chart this fall, and quick linebackers such as Keanon Cooper and Gary Tinsley are being counted on to get into the backfield.

But the real difference, the coaches hope, comes with a new attitude about defense and getting to the quarterback. They are great believers in the value of pressure, and are willing to take calculated risks in order to create it.

"When you apply pressure to anyone, people make mistakes. And that's true in any walk of life, not just football," Claeys said. "When you create pressure on the quarterback, he's going to make more bad decisions, mental mistakes; he's going to make more physical mistakes -- tipped passes or bad mechanics; and he's going to have it on his mind, so you affect not only that play but maybe the next one, too."

"It's just a different mentality. Now, every play is a pass rush," Wilhite said. "Before, we were focused on being gap-sound, not giving your guy open space. This is so much more aggressive, it feels like a different way to play."

Proven track record

The benefits outweigh the risk of an occasional mistake, Claeys figures. He doesn't consider himself a gambler but said he considers aggressiveness to be more disruptive than a conservative mind-your-gaps strategy.

"You have to make the offense feel stressed. The more pressure you apply, the better the chance they'll make a mistake," Claeys said. "We want speed, we want energy. We want to get to the quarterback or make him get rid of it. The quicker the ball comes out, the sooner you can run after it."

Kill and Claeys have the track record to prove it works. In three seasons at Northern Illinois, Claeys' defense led the Mid-American Conference in either total defense or scoring defense each year. And the Huskies sacked the quarterback at least 30 times in each of the past two seasons, something the Gophers have accomplished only once in the past decade.

"You don't have to sack the quarterback to stop an offense," Claeys said. "But it helps."

To produce more sacks -- Minnesota has recorded 15 or fewer three times in the past six seasons -- the Gophers intend to bring pass rushers from more angles and frequently change assignments. Linebackers will be loosed on the offense, a substantial change for a defense that became so concerned with its inability to stop the run last year that it rarely blitzed.

Wilhite, for one, says he can see the results of telling Cooper, who lines up outside, to sic the quarterback.

"Coop's a lot faster than me. You get him out there on the edge, it gives us a whole different look," the junior from Louisville said. "I'm doing moves out there, working my guy, and he'll just tear right past me. So it opens up a lot of stuff for us."

"If you can create pressure by rushing three and dropping eight back, you're going to be pretty good," Claeys said. "But more realistically, you're going to have to give the guys on the line some help."

They'll also substitute more than most teams, in order to keep players fresh.

"At Northern, it would look like a hockey line change, we roll so many kids in and out," Claeys said. "Kids want to play an aggressive style of defense, and they know they can go hard, because we won't let them wear down."

Even the Gophers offensive linemen, who work against that defense in practice every day, say the change is noticeable.

"Oh yeah, the D-line has improved immensely since last year," left tackle Ed Olson said. "They're using their hands so much more now, they're much more effective."

Putting pressure on the quarterback might be the goal. But for the moment, the pressure is on the defensive line.

"Part of me wants to say it's a team game, and [pass rushing] is just one part of it," Wilhite said. "But deep down we know if we don't go out and produce sacks, it's going to be hard for us to win this year. DBs have to cover, linebackers have to cover, but at the end of the day, getting sacks, getting to the quarterback is going to directly change the outcome of games."

  • 2011 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW GOPHERS

    Defense: Speed and energy are the watchwords as the new staff overhauls the squad.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

San Francisco - M. Bumgarner 7:07 PM
Pittsburgh - E. Volquez
Minnesota 10/2/14 7:25 PM
Green Bay
Buffalo 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Detroit
Chicago 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Cleveland 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
St. Louis 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia
Atlanta 10/5/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
Tampa Bay 10/5/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Houston 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Dallas
Baltimore 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis
Pittsburgh 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Arizona 10/5/14 3:05 PM
Denver
Kansas City 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
NY Jets 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Diego
Cincinnati 10/5/14 7:30 PM
New England
Seattle 10/6/14 7:30 PM
Washington
Washington 6:00 PM
Buffalo
Carolina 6:00 PM
Columbus
Pittsburgh 6:30 PM
Detroit
Montreal 7:30 PM
Chicago
Arizona 8:00 PM
Edmonton
Fla Atlantic 10/2/14 6:00 PM
FIU
UCF 10/2/14 6:00 PM
Houston
Arizona 10/2/14 9:30 PM
(2) Oregon
Louisville 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Syracuse
San Diego St 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Utah State 10/3/14 9:15 PM
(18) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(12) Miss State
Ball State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Army
Iowa State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(21) Oklahoma State
Marshall 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Old Dominion
Southern Miss 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Middle Tennessee
(20) Ohio State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Maryland
Purdue 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Florida 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Tennessee
SMU 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(22) East Carolina
Virginia Tech 10/4/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Eastern Mich 10/4/14 1:00 PM
Akron
North Texas 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Indiana
Massachusetts 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Tulsa 10/4/14 2:00 PM
Colorado State
New Mexico 10/4/14 2:30 PM
TX-San Antonio
(3) Alabama 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(11) Ole Miss
(14) Stanford 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(9) Notre Dame
(17) Wisconsin 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Northwestern
Navy 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
(7) Baylor 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Texas
(4) Oklahoma 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(25) TCU
Wake Forest 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
NC State 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Clemson
Buffalo 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Bowling Green
Ohio U 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Central Mich
Oregon State 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Colorado
Vanderbilt 10/4/14 3:00 PM
(13) Georgia
Kansas 10/4/14 3:00 PM
West Virginia
Kent State 10/4/14 4:00 PM
Northern Ill
South Alabama 10/4/14 5:00 PM
Appalachian St
Texas-El Paso 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
(15) LSU 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(5) Auburn
UAB 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Ky
Texas Tech 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(23) Kansas State
Michigan 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rutgers
Hawaii 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rice
Toledo 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Mich
ULM 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Georgia State 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana
Idaho 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Texas State
Memphis 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Arizona State 10/4/14 6:30 PM
(16) USC
So Carolina 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Kentucky
Pittsburgh 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Virginia
Miami-Florida 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Georgia Tech
(19) Nebraska 10/4/14 7:00 PM
(10) Michigan State
UNLV 10/4/14 7:00 PM
San Jose St
Ga Southern 10/4/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Utah 10/4/14 9:30 PM
(8) UCLA
Boise State 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Nevada
Winnipeg 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Ottawa
Calgary 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Saskatchewan
Edmonton 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Toronto
Brt Columbia 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Hamilton
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 season     
Aug 28 - vs. E. Illinois 6 pmX42-20
Sep 6 - vs. M. Tennessee St. 2:30 pmX35-24
Sep 13 - at TCU 3 pmX30-7
Sep 20 - vs. San Jose St. 3 p.m.X24-7
Sep 27 - at Michigan 2:30 pm30-14
Oct 11 - vs. Northwestern 11 am
Oct 18 - vs. Purdue 11 am
Oct 25 - at Illinois 11 am
Nov 8 - vs. Iowa TBA
Nov 15 - vs. Ohio State TBA
Nov 22 - at Nebraska TBA
Nov 29 - at Wisconsin TBA

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: How will the Gophers do against Michigan?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close