The Gophers safety plays with that swagger on the field — he has 34 games and 23 starts under his belt with Minnesota — but also talks the talk off the gridiron. When asked Tuesday about how good the Gophers’ secondary can be in 2013, Vereen made a statement with confidence.
“To be the best secondary in the Big Ten is our goal,” he said. “This year, we 100 percent truly feel that that’s possible.”
The Gophers actually weren’t too far from leading the conference in pass defense a year ago. Minnesota allowed 186.6 passing yards per game, the fourth-fewest of all Big Ten teams. Of course, there are many facets involved in that. Part of it had to do with an improved pass rush, but it was also thanks in part to the maturity of the cornerbacks and safeties.
Now, however, Minnesota is in the midst of replacing two veteran cornerbacks from last year’s squad. Gone are cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, who both graduated following the 2012 season. The former led Minnesota with four interceptions — including one for a touchdown — while the latter led Minnesota with 82 tackles.
The Gophers now have zero players on the roster with starting experience at cornerback. One of the two projected starters for 2013, Derrick Wells, made 11 starts in 2012 at safety. The other likely starting cornerback, sophomore Eric Murray, did not start at all as a freshman and played mostly on special teams.
“That’s one of those positions that you want to have good performances at, because those show up pretty quick,” said defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel. “Right now I’m pleased with the talent and I’m pleased with the work ethic of it. I think we’ve got a lot further to go to get to where we want to be as a defense as that position, but it’s coming.”
Sawvel hopes Minnesota’s secondary can learn follow the example left by Stoudermire and Carter. Vereen said he learned from Stoudermire how to play physical against opposing wide receivers. Carter taught Vereen how to study the game and learn from watching film.
Vereen, whose older brother, Shane, is a running back for the New England Patriots, believes the Gophers now have more experience in the secondary. The lessons they’ve learned from the cornerbacks and safeties that came before them could go a long way for the defense in 2013.
That confidence that Vereen oozes is something his coach can appreciate.
“If you’re going to play back there and you don’t have any confidence, you’re in trouble,” said Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. “You better have a lot of confidence, but he’s got a lot of reason to be confident because he’s a good player, good person, great athlete, great bloodline, great family. You name it, he’s got it.”
Wells has transitioned back to cornerback after starting at the position as a freshman in 2011 and moving to safety in 2012. He made two interceptions last year and had 10 pass breakups, second-most on the team after Carter (15).
Having started as a cornerback, Wells says the adjustment back to the outside has been smooth. Like Vereen — who will be opposite Cedric Thompson at safety — Wells believes the Gophers’ secondary can take another step forward this year.
“I think this year we’re going to do a lot better,” he said. “I think we’re more athletic in the secondary. I think this is going to be a good year.”
Sawvel doesn’t disagree, but he sees the situation with a skeptical eye you would expect a coach to have. He likes the athleticism and physicality the secondary possesses, but he knows some of the group is inexperienced. Senior Martez Shabazz played in nine games last year and had an interception. Junior Briean Boddy played in all 13 games as a sophomore but did not make a start.
“It’s a day in, day out thing and who gets consistent and who can help us win the games we need to win each week. There might be somebody play a bigger role based on who we play,” Sawvel said. “Right now I’m pleased with where we’re at, but there’s also a physical element to it. That’s one thing with the corners that I didn’t think we were good enough last year all the time of being physical enough. When you play Michigan State and Michigan and Nebraska and people like that, you better be physical out there on the edge. We’ve got to get better at that.”