Monday, March 1, 2010

Don't Forget About the D

Not sure if you heard, but yesterday this happened. And then in Vancouver, and all across Canada, and in my house, something like this happened. While watching the games Friday and yesterday my buddy Phil (a fellow Canadian) and I consumed almost as much Molson as the Canadian as the Canadian women's hockey team! All in all a great hockey tournament, hopefully it will gain the sport some new fans and ultimately get it back on E!SPN where people can actually watch it. And maybe somehow get rid of all the teams south of the Mason Dixon line. And get Gary Bettman fired. Not that I think the game needs some changes or anything.

Ok then, back to Gopher football. Besides the focus on recruiting, all the talk this offseason seems to be on offense: How can the offensive coordinator for the worst offense in the Big Ten actually get an NFL job? Can a man who has never called plays before be a good offensive coordinator? Who's going to start at quarterback? Who's going to start at tailback? Can the receivers get some consistency? Can the offensive line actually learn to, you know, block and stuff?

Certainly a lot of good questions and a lot of intrigue on the offensive side of the ball, but let's not forget about the defense. GN over at The Daily Gopher (this is a good time to point out that if you like March Madness, and for some reason can't get to a TV but are stuck in front of your say, at work...TDG will be showing NCAA tourney games live on their site thanks to an agreement with CBS Sports) said this offseason that despite the fact the offense gets nine starters back and the defense LOSES nine starters, he's more confident in the D than the O heading into 2010. While I don't always agree with GN (especially when it comes to Adam Weber), I could not agree with him more on this one.

As bad as the offense was in 2009, let's not forget the defense was pretty darn good, especially in the last three games of the season against SDSU, Iowa, and Iowa State. Overall, Kevin Cosgrove's defense ranked 5th in the Big Ten in scoring (allowed 23.8 pts per game), 6th in total defense (369.2 ypg), and 5th in pass defense. When the Gopher offense wasn't going 3-and-out all game long and keeping our D on the field for 35 minutes a game or more, they were pretty effective. The nine starters we lose were all solid contributors, and most were not highly ranked prospects but through hard work and (I'd like to think) good coaching, developed into Big Ten caliber defenders. So they're certainly going to be missed.

Still, regardless of what happens with our offense, there's definitely some improvements that need to happen defensively for this program to take the next step in 2010. I see two big things that need to change: one is getting off the field on third downs, and the second is getting pressure on the quarterback, and the two are definitely related. For most of 2009, the defense was dead last in the Big Ten in opponents 3rd down%, hovering near 50%, although there were some improvements in two of the last three games, holding SDSU to 3-16, and Iowa to 1-13. Granted, those two were not exactly offensive juggernauts, but Iowa did win the Orange Bowl. A big reason they struggled so much with third downs is the failure to get any kind of pressure on the quarterback. The Gophs were tied with Michigan for the second least amount of sacks in the Big Ten with just 22 (Sconnie and Penn State led with 37 apiece), and were just never able to replicate the sacks and pressure DE Willie VandeSteeg generated in 2008.

Finding an edge rusher from our young group of defensive ends will be key, but bringing pressure from anywhere and everywhere is going to be a team effort. Thankfully, while we don't have a ton of starting experience coming back in 2010, we do have more size and athleticism on defense than any Gopher group I can remember. We're big and/or fast at pretty much all 11 spots, and for me what's just as exciting is there's going to be some heavy competition for just about every starting position. I fully expect Kim Royston and Kyle Theret to be our starting safeties, but the rest are pretty open. I want to focus on the defensive line battles for another time, because there's certainly some good candidates along the line that can help us get more pressure and fill the running lanes. But another part of the QB pressure and 3rd down efficiency issue is the pressure we can bring from our backers and safeties on blitzes, as well as the coverage our back seven can provide. Improvements there are just as important as it is for the four guys up front, and two of the most interesting competitions on the team will be at linebacker and corner.

We'll look at the corner battle soon, but today let's talk linebackers. We have as many as six linebackers who will be considered for three starting positions, but really, two of them are already locked up. Sophomore Keanon Cooper, who finished 7th in tackles last year with 37, will be a starter at one of the outside spots. While he was only listed at 210lbs last season, his speed and strength more than made up for it. Hopefully some time in the weight room and the cafeteria can bulk him up some more, but regardless he's going to be a disruptive force on the outside both on the blitz and in coverage. Despite having three solid senior linebackers, by the end of the year the coaches just couldn't keep junior Gary Tinsley off the field. Tinsley might have been the Gophers best defender in the loss to Iowa, and continued his strong play in the bowl game. With good size and speed, Tinsley WILL start somewhere in 2010, but whether it's at inside or outside linebacker depends upon one man: Sam Maresh.

Maresh, as you probably know, was a highly decorated recruit from Champlin (who was also a 2-time Class AAA state wrestling champ) who at 6'3 and 250 lbs was expected to compete for playing time immediately as a freshman in 2008. Then doctors found a congenital heart defect which required surgery and some thought might end his playing career before it ever began. Maresh defied the odds and returned to the team in 2009 where he was redshirted and worked hard to get back into football shape. The question for 2010 will be whether he can be 100% again and play like the potential all-Big Ten middle linebacker he looked like coming out of high school? If he can, and he looks great in the spring, then either the coaches will move Tinsley outside, or they might play more 3-4, allowing both Tinsley and Maresh to play the middle.

But if Maresh doesn't prove to be worthy of starting, then Tinsley stays inside and it'll be up to as many as three other guys to fight for the other outside linebacker spot. Spencer Reeves, who like Cooper played at Dallas Skyline high school, is another sophomore with speed and strength who could make a real impact in 2010. IF Maresh isn't ready, then I hope Reeves is, as to me he has the most potential of the remaining guys to be a play-maker. The great thing is, he's going to really have to prove it, as he'll be pushed hard by redshirt frosh Brent Singleton and converted DB Mike Rallis. Neither guy is very big, as both are currently listed around 210 lbs, but they make up for it with good speed and instincts, and both would help a lot in pass coverage. As much as I loved last year's group of starting backers, other Simoni Lawrence, both Lee Campbell and Nate Tripplet weren't great when they had to drop into coverage. Whoever starts for us on the outside should be an improvement there, and hopefully can be just as good against the run.

With these six, and with perhaps more guys stepping up around them, we've got every reason to be excited about the potential of our linebackers, and our defense, in 2010.

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