Since Tracy Claeys took over as defensive coordinator in 2011, the Gophers football team has shown great improvement. Claeys said he believes that will continue in 2014.
“I think we should play better than we did a year ago,” Claeys said. “I’ll be disappointed if we’re not improved. We have more depth back, not only that has played in Big Ten games but those kids have played well in Big Ten games. We’re looking forward to having a good group of kids back who have played an awful lot in the Big Ten.”
The Gophers’ record under coach Jerry Kill has improved each season as well, from 3-9 in 2011 to 6-7 in 2012 to 8-5 last season. In the past, the big reason the Gophers have lost has been terrible defense.
In 2011, the Gophers finished 93rd in the country in scoring defense, allowing 31.7 points per game. In 2012 they finished tied for 45th, allowing 24.7 points per game. Then last season they climbed up to 25th, allowing 22.2 points per game.
Claeys acknowledged that replacing two NFL draft picks, defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen, will be difficult, but he believes the overall depth in the secondary and defensive line can make up for the loss.
Last year, the defense allowed 215.1 passing yards per game, good for 35th in the nation and fifth overall in the Big Ten.
“We’re fortunate in the secondary because while Brock is gone, we’re going to get Derrick Wells back [from a shoulder injury] at 100 percent, get back Briean [Boddy-Calhoun from a torn left ACL] at 100 percent. Damarius Travis had a great spring along with Cedric Thompson, Antonio Johnson, Jalen Myrick is back, not to mention Eric Murray, so I think that’s a really deep position for us for kids who have played in games and have a lot of experience.
“With the experience we have in the secondary, we should be better than what we were a year ago. We played really well except for two games in the secondary on third downs, and that was the Michigan and Iowa games. A year older and a lot of those kids are back, hopefully more mature, and they have worked awfully hard this summer and put in the time. I’m expecting great things from them.”
Will miss Hageman
Meanwhile the defense allowed 158.2 rushing yards per game in 2013, which was ranked 55th national and eighth in the Big Ten, but was still a big improvement on its 2012 mark when it gave up 172 yards on the ground per game and finished 74th in the nation.
Claeys said the Gophers will need a number of players to step up to fill the void Hageman left on the line.
“Up front, Scott Ekpe has played well and he’ll be a junior this year, and he’s bigger,” Claeys said. “We may not have somebody make as big of plays as Ra’Shede at tackle, but I think Theiren Cockran will make big plays at defensive end. Up front I feel good with where we’re at and the guys coming back. And then at linebacker with Damien Wilson coming back, De’Vondre Campbell now is 240 pounds and had a great spring. We’ve got to find out who that third linebacker is going to be.”
One player who could fill that spot is Cody Poock, a 6-2, 235-pound sophomore who is recovering from a torn ACL.
“I think right now he’ll start camp with us, and they say he’s got a chance to be back for the Big Ten season, so we’ll just let it play out and when they say he’s ready to go, then we’ll make a decision whether to play him or not,” Claeys said. “You hate to hurry it because he has a redshirt year, and so if you play him, you burn that. If he’s not ready to go 100 percent we’ll wait, but if he’s ready to go for the Big Ten season, it’s probably worth putting him in there.”
Claeys assessed some defensive players who redshirted last year and could have an impact this season.
“In the secondary there is [Daletavious] McGhee. We were able to redshirt him, and he’ll be ready to play at linebacker,” Claeys said. “There’s De’Niro Laster, Rayfield Dixon. They had the opportunity to redshirt, so it’s the first time on defense we’ve had some kids that have redshirted. And up front Demaris Peppers is a kid who is a D-tackle who redshirted who played pretty good in the spring. We’re going to pick up some depth from a few of those redshirt kids.”
Claeys was asked about the tough end to the Gophers’ schedule, when the team will face Ohio State at home and then travel to Nebraska and Wisconsin.
“The good thing is we only play one at a time,” he said. “We don’t have to play them all in the same weekend. Just like any season, you have to be able to prepare and play your best each Saturday, one day at a time. It still comes down to the team that shows up the most prepared each week and plays the hardest is usually the team that wins. I feel like we’re in a position that each week we should have that opportunity to win.”