College Football: Gophers secondary has talent, depth but seeks respect
Two years ago, University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill signed a recruiting class filled with defensive backs.
Kill was desperate to fill what he considered the biggest hole in his lineup. Six of those players saw game action their first season, in 2012, and the one that didn’t was moved to linebacker.
Not redshirting Eric Murray, Damarius Travis, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Antonio Johnson in their first season with the Gophers forced them to develop faster.
Kill and his staff did the same thing to Cedric Thompson and Derrick Wells when they arrived in 2011.
And now the Gophers have their most talented, experienced secondary in years. The team’s identity this season starts with the swagger of the defensive backs.
“You have to have secondary people who can play,” Kill said Tuesday. “We’ve been able to do that.”
The Gophers’ secondary lost All-Big Ten selection Brock Vereen, who is now with the Chicago Bears. But ready to go this season are six defensive backs who started at least two games apiece last year; they have a combined 60 starts.
With just two career starts, junior safety Damarius Travis is the least experienced player among the projected starters, but he had perhaps the best spring practices of them all.
“The whole thing with the secondary is finding out in the packages where everybody fits to give us the best opportunity to win,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “So, he’s a kid who gives us a lot of flexibility. His size (6 feet 2, 211 pounds) allows him to play close to the box.”
Thompson, a senior safety, will take pressure off Travis too because of his experience; he has 19 career starts, the most among players in the secondary. His 14 tackles in the Texas Bowl loss against Syracuse were a career high.
“I’ve matured. I’m experienced. I’m confident. I’m ready,” he said. “I’m just excited to play this year. How I played in the bowl game is what I’ll expect from myself in every game this season.”
Thompson says he’s sharing the leadership role in fall camp with Boddy-Calhoun, who missed almost all of last season with a medical redshirt.
The former junior college transfer was arguably Minnesota’s top cornerback going into the 2013 season, and he didn’t disappoint with an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown in the opener against Nevada-Las Vegas. But Boddy-Calhoun suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game, at New Mexico State.
Despite his misfortune, it didn’t take long for his positive attitude to take hold.
“He’s so high spirited,” Thompson said. “He cried like everybody else would after hearing about the injury. But 15 minutes later, he was already excited for next spring. He so easily influences you to take the next step.”
Boddy-Calhoun’s injury seemed to be a significant blow at the time, but junior Eric Murray took advantage of the opportunity. He established himself as one of the top shut-down cornerbacks in the Big Ten, holding Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis, Penn State’s Allen Robinson and Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon below their average in receiving yards.
Claeys said Murray was motivated during the offseason to become an All-American after being snubbed for all-conference honors last year.
Speaking of snubs, Murray and his teammates are acutely aware that one college football preseason magazine — Lindy’s Sports — ranks Minnesota’s defensive backs 13th of 14 Big Ten teams this season.
“It definitely motivates you,” Murray said. “Confidence level is really, really high because you have people with experience and who played before, people who were battling injuries. They’re getting better and we’re all getting better collectively as a group.”
The Gophers expect opponents to throw away from Murray this season, and that’s something Wells already is taking advantage of in fall camp. The 6-foot, 200-pound senior, who plays cornerback and safety, had an interception in Saturday’s open scrimmage in front of fans at TCF Bank Stadium. Then he had another impressive interception during Tuesday’s practice, Kill said.
A lingering shoulder injury kept Wells from playing to the potential he showed as the best playmaker in the secondary two years ago. In the spring, he wasn’t allowed to participate in contact drills, and that gave sophomore Jalen Myrick, the team’s fastest player, valuable reps.
But Wells appears to be playing as well as he was before the injury, and that is just one more reason why the Gophers think they have one of the best groups of defensive backs in the Big Ten now.
“To say we’re not as good as last year, we wouldn’t have done our jobs as coaches if we’re not at that level or better,” defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel said. “We’ve got guys who can play and have shown they can compete.”
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