After going 3-9 and 6-7 the past two seasons, the Gophers owed much of their improvement to their defense. It allowed 31.7 points per game two years ago, 24.7 last year.
The coaches want this year’s defense to be even stingier, and they have taken steps to prevent any hint of complacency.
“The reality of it is, we took a little step forward last year on defense, but it wasn’t enough,” Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel said. “When you line up, you’ve got to have a will to dominate the person you’re playing against — every day.”
Sawvel spoke after Tuesday’s practice, the first in full pads.
“I didn’t think we practiced to dominate,” he said. “I think we practiced just to be out here and get better at some stuff, put our pads on and make sure they fit.”
The Gophers need to replace five defensive starters — cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper, and defensive end D.L. Wilhite.
But the team feels it can take another step with the players coming back, and some key newcomers, including two junior college transfers at linebacker: Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell.
“Yeah we’re bigger, yeah we’re stronger, yeah we’re a little faster, yeah we’ve recruited some guys who can play,” Sawvel said. “But you also have to have a mindset that ‘Hey, I want to go out there and dominate the person I play against’ — not just play against them.”
Kicking battle forms
Jordan Wettstein graduated after handling the kickoff and field-goal kicking duties last year. The battle to replace him is among senior Chris Hawthorne and freshmen Ryan Santoso and Andre Harte.
Hawthorne kicked for North Carolina State in 2010 and handled the Gophers kicking duties for the first seven games of 2011, converting six of nine field-goal attempts before injuring a hamstring.
“I think, right now, Chris has kicked in a game, and somebody’s got to prove they’re going to come in and take that job,” Kill said. “It’s like anything else, everything’s open, but he’s certainly got a head start on everybody because he does have experience.”
Jon Christenson handled first-team center duties through spring practice despite spraining an ankle. He had surgery on the ankle after spring camp and looked as if he hadn’t missed a beat when preseason camp opened.
“It was a pretty minor surgery, but I’m feeling great right now,” Christenson said. “It was a thing that needed to get fixed, and I’m glad I did it.”
With Zach Mottla (compound leg fracture) and Brian Bobek (heart infection) sidelined, Christenson’s health is a key for the Gophers. The second-string center is converted guard Tommy Olson.
• Offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig (knee surgery) traded his green, no-contact jersey for a regular jersey and took part in one-on-one drills, but the coaches have yet to clear him for 11-on-11 action.
• Cornerback Derrick Wells (bruised shoulder) also was back in a regular jersey.
• Kill said senior safety Brock Vereen got hit in a knee but is OK.