Eric Murray wasn’t sure he had a future in college football until the Gophers discovered him. As a wide receiver from Milwaukee’s inner city, he barely even saw a recruiter. Now he’s a cornerback destined to play in the NFL, coach Jerry Kill said.
Derrick Wells is another Gophers cornerback with pro potential, Kill said, and Wells’ only other scholarship offer coming out of Lehigh Acres, Fla., was from Ball State.
The secondary might be the team’s biggest strength, and it’s filled with similar stories. Defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel has developed a knack for unearthing hidden gems.
Of the four defensive backs the Gophers will start Saturday against Middle Tennessee State, none had an offer from another school besides Minnesota in a Power-5 conference (Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, ACC).
Cedric Thompson was a running back from Bombay Beach, Calif., whose best other offer came from Portland State. Fellow safety Antonio Johnson had recruiting interest in Cleveland, mostly from Mid-American Conference schools.
Sawvel lured them to Minnesota and went to work refining their skills, adding them to a growing collection of talent, size, speed and experience. This year, expectations for this unit are sky-high.
“I think our secondary will be as good as anybody’s in the Big Ten,” Kill said.
The Gophers yielded 310 passing yards to Eastern Illinois in last week’s opener, but nearly half came after Minnesota opened a 35-0 lead in the fourth quarter. The baldheaded, brash-talking Sawvel will use that inflated statistic as motivation, reminding his charges that they’re not that good — yet.
Sawvel, 43, is a Barnesville, Ohio, native who played linebacker at Mount Union and spent four years as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame. He has coached under Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys since 2001, when they took over at Southern Illinois.
In that staff’s final year at Northern Illinois, in 2010, the Huskies secondary featured four players who went on to play in the NFL — Chris Smith, Tracy Wilson, Rashaan Melvin and Jimmie Ward.
When the 49ers made Ward a first-round draft pick in May, he tweeted, “Big shout out to coach Jay Sawvel. The only D1 coach who took a chance on me.”
Sawvel went to watch Ward at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and saw the playmaking ability. He also saw the speed and size.
“When we left Northern Illinois, if you looked at us, we had 6-foot bodies [playing defensive back] with long arms,” Sawvel said. “They were 200-pound kids. We were big, but we could move.”
The Gophers had speedy defensive backs, too, but many were also small. In Kill’s first season, they ranked 49th in the nation in pass defense. By 2012, they climbed to 12th. Last year, they slipped to 35th, but that was after losing Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun to injuries.
“When we got here, we had three defensive backs who weighed 195 pounds or more; I think now we’ve got 13,” Sawvel said. “There’s a big difference. This is big-boy football, and you can’t play with small guys.”
Brock Vereen was one of Brewster’s recruits who helped key the turnaround. By last season, Vereen was a 6-foot, 200-pound first-team All-Big Ten selection. The Bears drafted him in the fourth round and plan to play him at safety Sunday against the Bills.
Thompson and Wells arrived as unheralded recruits in 2011, afterthoughts in a class Kill’s staff had pulled together less than two months after being hired. The 2012 recruiting class included six defensive backs. Johnson, Boddy-Calhoun and Damarius Travis held obvious promise, but Murray seemed like a throw-in.
But Sawvel got the chance to work with Murray at a Gophers camp. He saw the wiry 6-foot frame, long arms, speed and tenacity and figured he could teach the rest.
“To be honest with you, that’s kind of what we have to do,” Kill said. “We’ve got to project and coach and teach. A lot of [fans] want five-star athletes and don’t understand why we’re not getting them. We’re working our tail end off, but it’s not easy to do.”
Former Gophers coach Glen Mason faced the same challenge and found his own niche. In 2004, Minnesota had three first-team All-Big Ten offensive linemen — Greg Eslinger, Mark Setterstrom and Rian Melander. None had been a highly touted recruit.
“That was kind of our trademark,” Mason said.
The Gophers will face a challenge over the next two years when nine scholarship player in the secondary graduate. They already feel good about underclassmen such as Jalen Myrick, Daletavious McGhee and Craig James, whom Sawvel calls “the most advanced freshman corner we’ve had.”
The Gophers plan to sign six defensive backs in their 2015 class. That’s a lot of work for Sawvel, but this gives him a chance to pan for more gold.
Two years ago, he got a commitment from Nate Andrews, who had played mostly wide receiver in Fairhope, Ala. Andrews turned down late offers from Tennessee and Auburn, saying he was heading to Minnesota. Two weeks before signing day, he finally flipped to Florida State.
As a true freshman last year, Andrews grabbed four interceptions for the national champion Seminoles and took home third-team All-ACC honors. Last Saturday, he opened the new season with a pick-six against Oklahoma State.
There’s no doubt Andrews would have helped the Gophers, but the mere fact they were in the discussion is a testament to Sawvel.
“I’m going to tell you right now,” Kill said, “this is the best defensive backs coach in the country.”
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