The Gophers need more offensive playmakers, but don’t forget about their defense.
The much-improved unit ranked 25th in the nation in scoring defense last year (22.2 points allowed per game), and did some scoring of their own, too.
In the season opener against UNLV, they got an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown from Briean-Boddy Calhoun, and Ra’Shede Hageman blocked a field goal, which Martez Shabazz scooped up and returned 51 yards for a score. Aaron Hill had a 50-yard fumble return for a touchdown against New Mexico State, a 39-yard interception return for a TD against Wisconsin, and he recovered the fumble that clinched the victory at Indiana. If there was one play that helped turn around the 8-5 season, it was James Manuel’s 24-yard pick six at Northwestern.
Hill, Manuel and Hageman have graduated, along with All-Big Ten defensive back Brock Vereen. But here are some of the defensive playmakers the Gophers are counting on this year:
Theiren Cockran, junior DE
He was among the Big Ten leaders with 7 ½ sacks and added four forced fumbles last year.
Damien Wilson, senior LB
He ranked second on the team with 78 tackles and delivered some huge hits. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys says Wilson is headed for a big year.
De’Vondre Campbell, junior LB
He’s a 6-5, 240-pounder with sprinter’s speed who made 41 tackles last year while sharing time with Manuel. The Gophers can’t wait to see what Campbell can do as an every-down player.
Derrick Wells, senior CB
He’s back from a shoulder injury and has regained the form that helped him pick off two passes in the 2012 season opener at UNLV.
Eric Murray, junior CB
He didn’t have an interception last year, but that’s partly because teams learned to avoid him, even when he covered such standout receivers as Penn State’s Allen Robinson, Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis and Nebraska’s Kenny Bell.