I caught up with Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys today, previewing spring practice, which starts March 3. He was in great spirits and feels very confident about the defense, even though they need to replace Damien Wilson, Cedric Thompson, Cameron Botticelli, Michael Amaefula, Derrick Wells and Co.
A few notables:
* Claeys said DT Scott Ekpe and LB Nick Rallis, two players coming off ACL surgery, will be full-go by June. Rallis provides key depth at all three linebacker spots, and Ekpe will be counted on to start at defensive tackle, alongside Steven Richardson.
* Claeys said middle linebacker is the obvious question, considering Wilson took almost all the reps there the past two seasons. He said Everett Williams and Cody Poock are both candidates to replace Wilson, and Jack Lynn could move back to the middle after starting at outside linebacker last year. Claeys said sophomore Jonathan Celestin's rapid development at outside linebacker would free up Lynn to move back to the middle, if necessary.
* The Gophers feel great about their secondary. Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray are returning All-Big Ten cornerbacks. The coaches feel those two, along with safety Damarius Travis, all have NFL potential. Antonio Johnson has been a starting safety. And there is plenty of depth behind that foursome, too.
* Knowing the Gophers need to replace Amaefula at defensive end, Claeys mentioned Hank Ekpe. "He's really had a good offseason," Claeys said. "He’s as good an athlete as we’ve got on our football team." And Gaelin Elmore "continues to get better," Claeys said. "I don’t know how much weight he’s put on, but his body’s changing. I would imagine he’ll stay around the 270 mark. For how well he’s moving, we’ll leave him at defensive end."
* Also, I asked Claeys about the recent chatter about getting the NCAA to re-consider making freshmen ineligible again, and he said: “First off, if one [conference] does it, everyone needs to do it -- all Power 5 conferences. Otherwise you’re at a huge disadvantage. You’d have to tell them, 'You’re going to sit out here, but you can go to Missouri or somewhere like that and play right away as a freshman?'
“Number two, back when there was freshman ineligibility [before 1972], they also had more scholarships. So in our opinion, you’re going to have to increase scholarships because we’re going to go to battle. We probably play 8-10 freshmen each year, so they better jump that up, increase the scholarship numbers to 95 or whatever.”