Friday, March 26, 2010

Gophers All-Conference Candidates- Defense

What's the good word? Happy Friday to you and yours. Happy Friday if you watched March Madness last night. Double OT for K-State and Xavier (that Gopher 1st round loss doesn't look so bad now, does it?) and Butler pulls off yet another shocker. More good games to come tonight, although I'll be fortunate enough to be at another kind of NCAA Tournament- the 1st round of the hockey NCAA tournament for Wisconsin and Vermont at The X. Anyone know what time the Gophers play at? Oh that's right, they didn't make it. Not even close. As a Canucks fan I was so happy Jordan Schroeder went pro and is playing in the AHL (two goals in his first game including one on his first shift) because at least I know he'll develop properly. What is Don Lucia doing? Does he last another year?

Anyway, onto Gopher football, since today is Day 4 of spring practice and all so there's plenty to talk about. Let's check the dailies and our favorite beat writers Kent Youngblood of the Strib and Marcus Fuller of the PP to see what exciting stories and blog entries they have posted for us.......hmmmm they have nothing for the second day in a row.

Do they know practice is going on? Do they know it's their job to report on it? Both gentlemen are fine football scribes, but perhaps they need a refresher on this whole "blogging" thing? Am I crazy or is it not much to ask two guys who get paid to write about Gopher football to post once or twice a day during spring practice? Is it? Please tell me if I'm asking too much here.

So since we have no inside info on what's going on at practice and how the many, many, many position battles are going, we'll continue to muse about who could be an all-conference candidate for Minnesota in 2010. Yesterday we looked at the five best candidates on offense, and today it's all about the defense. If you're one of our tens of readers, you know I'm VERY bullish about our defense this year. Yes we lose nine starters, but I have to give Brew credit here: he's fielding the most athletic defense I've seen in my more than 10 years in Minnesota. While his offensive recruits haven't quite panned out yet, his young defensive kids were pushing a senior-laden group for playing time last year. We don't have much in the way of starting experience, but we do have plenty of guys with game experience. And speed. And in the case of Ra-Shede Hageman (who might have replaced MarQueis as this season's man-crush) ridiculous speed AND size at 292 pounds. Did I mention he's 292? Have I? Just checking. Because he's 292 pounds. As a redshirt freshman. You would expect that from Ohio State or Michigan or Penn State. But for little ol' Minnesota? Yeah that's fun stuff right there. Whatever happens with Brewster this year I will be grateful he left the cupboard stocked on defense.

Picking five possible all-conference candidates on offense was kind of like trying find a good singer on American Idol this year: after one or two people it gets pretty hard. But defensively, yeah there's a lot more than five. There might not be 11, but there's a lot more than five. So while I am man-crushing about Ra'Shede, it's a pretty tall order to ask a redshirt freshmen from any Big Ten school to be one of the best in the conference, so he doesn't make the list this year. But he's right atop my list of guys I'm excited about.

Here then, my pick for the five best defensive players, and the five most likely to garner All-Big Ten consideration for 2010:

5. Kim Royston, S, Senior
As one of two returning starters, I like Royston's skillset better than Kyle Theret's. Sure Theret is a thumper against the run, and I know he had more picks (3) than Royston (1) in 2009, but to say Theret's a tortoise in pass coverage is an insult to tortoise's everywhere. I just remember him looking SO overmatched in coverage against Ohio State, helping to make Terrelle Pryor and Devier Posey look like Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne. Royston is our leading returning tackler, including a game high 15 in the bowl loss to Iowa St, is decent in coverage, and I'm hoping really embraces a leadership role both on and off the field.

4. Keanon Cooper, OLB, R-Sophomore
Keanon's third in tackles for returing players, and while he's the size of a DB at just 6'0 and 210 (gee it'd sure be nice to get an update from practice to see whether Cooper's put on any weight in the offseason and looks bigger. Too bad we don't have any beat writers in town covering the team who could get us that information) he hits like a linebacker. IF he can put on some more weight, look out! He showed the speed and instincts last year to be a force both in coverage and rushing the passer, and whether it happens this year as just a sophomore or 2011 or 2012, I think it's safe to pencil in Cooper for an all-Big Ten selection before his Gopher career is over. Actually, you can put that in pen. Even in Sharpee.

3. D.L. Wilhite, DE, R-Sophomore
I'm calling him the "The Sack Doctor." Why? Well he's already been a scholar-athlete award winner and plans to pursue a pre-med degree, so if this football thing doesn't work out, he'll have something to fall back on. But after watching him as a freshman last year, I don't think he'll have to worry about a fall-back plan. It doesn't sound impressive if I told you he played in just 10 games and only recorded 3 tackles in 2009, playing at maybe 220 pounds (his bio has him up to 233 and I'd love to see him around 240 by September). But what if I told you all three were not only tackles-for-loss, but were sacks? And that total led the team- not just for returning players, but for everybody in 2009? Ok, ok so the fact a redshirt 220 pound freshman led the Gophs in sacks with just three shines a big glaring spotlight on the team's ineffectiveness on third down last year. But it still speaks to The Sack Doctor's pass rushing ability, and I believe with a full season, and a more athletic and talented front line beside him (you heard me: as much as I loved Garrett Brown and Eric Small, 2010's D-line will be better than 2009), Doc D.L. could be a pass-rushing force this year. And as we know, sacks are the glory defensive category that gets you noticed in a hurry.

2. Michael Carter, CB, Sophomore
He's switching numbers this year from #1 to #6, but whatever number Carter wears, he's still expected to be Minnesota's #1 corner. Jer and I were just plain giddy at his last-minute signing in 2009, and after watching him in the spring game made the bold prediction he could be starting by the end of the year. While he didn't quite make it, he was still hugely impressive as a true freshmen, getting thrown into the fire in the Michigan State game because starter Traye Simmons was doing his best Adam Weber impression, and the kid more than held his own against the second best passing offense in the Big Ten. He continued his strong play for the rest of the year, and if it wasn't for one boneheaded off-field move when he tried to fight another student, his freshman year would have been a smashing success. Since that incident which got him suspended, he's managed to stay out of trouble (hang on while I find the biggest tree I can find to knock on wood), and if he can focus his aggression on the field in 2010 Carter has a chance to be the best corner we've ever had here. He's at least the most talented corner since Willie Middlebrooks in 2000, but is getting a chance to play much, much earlier. It's a lot to ask of a true soph to anchor the pass coverage and be a shut-down corner, but if anyone is up to the challenge, it's Carter. If he keeps his head on straight, like Cooper, he's a lock for All-Big Ten before his career in Maroon and Gold is done.

1. Gary Tinsley, MLB, Junior
If you're looking for Minnesota's best player in 2010, look no further than Tinsley. Because of all of our senior linebacker talent in 2009, his numbers don't jump out at you. But against Iowa, in what was our most important game of the year, he led the team in tackles with 10, including 1.5 TFL and a sack. Linebacker is usually the most stacked position in the Big Ten, and the most difficult one to garner All-Conference honors (just ask the linebacking trio from last year), but this is how much I believe in Tinsley. Of course, all-conference will be as much about how much the team wins as it is about the numbers he puts up, but I fully expect Tinsley to be the best player in Maroon and Gold this fall, and if the team can get at least seven wins, he should be recognized by the media and coaches as one of the Big Ten's best players too.

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