Offseason Position Preview: Defensive Backs

Go Gophers!
Senior safety Brock Vereen should anchor a deep Minnesota secondary.

Go Gophers!
Senior safety Brock Vereen should anchor a deep Minnesota secondary.
Go Gophers!

June 26, 2013

OVERVIEW
The Golden Gopher secondary made great strides from 2011 to 2012. Last season, Minnesota’s pass defense ranked fourth in the Big Ten and 12th nationally. Defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel attributes much of the improvement to increases in athleticism and versatility.

The secondary faces the task of replacing outgoing seniors Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, but Sawvel believes that his group can step up to fill those spots without missing a beat.

“Looking ahead to it, I can look at the fact that I think our athleticism will be even better,” he said. “I think that we’re even bigger than what those guys were. I don’t think we’ll see any kind of a drop-off at corner. If anything, my expectation is that it improves. I’m looking forward to that. Anytime you lose guys who make a lot of good plays, you always concern yourself with that. But we’ve got good athletes. It would be different if you lose guys that make a lot of plays and you look behind them and you don’t have guys who are as good.”

FOCUS ON: POSITION CHANGES
The secondary will feature two Gopher juniors who moved to new positions after the 2012 season. Derrick Wells transitioned within the backfield from safety to cornerback, while classmate Marcus Jones made the switch from wide receiver. At 6 feet and 205 pounds, Wells is bigger than both departing senior starters.

“(Wells is) a guy that we think and expect tremendous things from playing the position,” Sawvel said. “He had a good spring doing it. He’s just really versatile. Actually, playing safety for a year, probably more than anything, helped him in his overall understanding of the defense and of playing it. I expect to him to be very, very good this year.”


 

 

An injury kept Jones out of fully participating in spring football, but Sawvel believes that he is athletic enough and knows enough about playing defense to be successful at the corner.

Sawvel said that sophomore Steven Montgomery, who played mostly on special teams last year, moved from safety to defensive back in the offseason.

KEY RETURNERS
In addition to Wells, the Gophers return the other two safeties who started during 2012. Senior Brock Vereen and junior Cedric Thompson are poised for good seasons this fall. Vereen did not initially start last year, but he improved throughout the season as he adapted to the safety position.

“He had really good performances at the last part of the year,” Sawvel said. “The bowl game, he was outstanding. The Michigan State game, he was really good. He had some really good games at the end of the year as he’s figured it out. What you get from him is consistency, reliability. He’s got experience. He’s not going to panic. He’s not going to flinch. He’s a really good player.”

Thompson and Vereen could both start at safety now that Wells has moved to cornerback. Sawvel said that Thompson, who never played safety before college, was just learning the position a year ago, but has grown into it well.

Sophomore Eric Murray played mostly on special teams last season, but could see a lot more action on defense in 2013. Sawvel said that Murray will have “a big learning curve,” but that he is a superior athlete who had an outstanding spring.

Junior Briean Boddy and senior Martez Shabazz also took a lot of snaps during spring practice.  Sawvel described Boddy as “steady, consistent, reliable and a really good athlete.” He said that Shabazz needs to work on consistency, but has the right tools and made some good plays last year. Shabazz was hampered by injuries last fall, but came back in time for the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

Sawvel also mentioned senior Jeremy Baltazar, junior Grayson Levine and sophomores Damarius Travis and Antonio Johnson as examples of Minnesota’s depth.

NEW FACES TO WATCH
The 2013 signing day class included Daletavious McGhee, an ESPN three-star prospect, and Jalen Myrick, ESPN’s No. 49 cornerback. Alexander Starks, Adekunle Ayinle and transfer Aaron Roundtree also joined the Gopher roster.

This year’s redshirt freshmen are Cavonte Johnson and John McKelvey.

CLOSING THOUGHTS
“I think we’ve got true depth, or at least have the ability to have true depth for the first time since we’ve been here,” Sawvel said. “Coming out of the spring, I felt like we could put any one of 10 different people on the field in the secondary and that we could function well. When you have depth like that, it gives you versatility to play the different kinds of people that you’ve got to play, to play different packages, to do different things. We didn’t have that type of full versatility last year.”