MINNEAPOLIS — The stat sheet says the University of Minnesota football team recorded 19 sacks on defense last season, third fewest in the Big Ten. But after reviewing the tapes from 2011, the Gophers saw 18 other instances where the defense nearly recorded a sack.
Of course, “near sacks” don’t count for anything and usually won’t change the course of the game. But after ranking dead last in all of Division I football with just eight sacks in 2010, Minnesota’s defense is making progress.
Still, the Gophers have a way to go before becoming a defense that strikes fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.
“It’s something that we saw go up last year, but we want to keep it increasing,” redshirt sophomore defensive end Ben Perry said of the sack total. “It has to increase. That’s something that’s a huge focus for us this year.”
Perry had just one of Minnesota’s 19 sacks last season. Linebacker Gary Tinsley, who died tragically from a heart condition earlier this year, led the Gophers defense with four sacks. D.L. Wilhite had three, while Kyle Henderson and Ra’Shede Hageman each had two.
But there were many other sacks the Gophers didn’t complete in 2011, and that’s been a focus during the fall camp in 2012.
“We’re more concentrated on finishing plays and not missing those sacks,” said Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. “The pressure was fine a year ago. We didn’t finish about 18 sacks we missed after watching the film. If we make those sacks, we’d be up toward the top of the Big Ten and we’d have gotten off the field a hell of a lot more, too.”
Michigan State led all Big Ten teams with 45 sacks in 2011, 26 more than the Gophers’ 19 sacks. Only Indiana (18 sacks) and Northwestern (17) got to the quarterback fewer times than Minnesota last season.
One thing the Gophers defense has going for it in 2012 that could help the sack total is depth at defensive line. That depth has yielded several position battles throughout fall camp. Just nine days prior to the season opener against UNLV, Minnesota’s starters on the defensive line have not been set. Coach Jerry Kill and his staff have spoken highly of several young linemen, including redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli, true freshman defensive tackle Scott Ekpe and redshirt freshman defensive end Thieran Cockran.
But the Gophers also return several linemen with experience from last year, including Hageman, Wilhite, Perry and sophomore Michael Amaefula, who was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last year.
“The whole defensive line, we’re always trying to compete and get better and out-do each other,” said Hageman, Minnesota’s most physically imposing defensive lineman at 6-foot-6, 301 pounds. “It’s more of a family. But we definitely compete all through the year.”
Added Perry: “It’s amazing competition. There’s a lot of depth on the line — a lot more than I’ve seen in a while.”
Minnesota ranked ninth in the Big Ten in pass defense last season. In order to turn that around, it will start with the Gophers’ defense line. Getting to the quarterback is only part of the equation, but an increase in sacks should help a Minnesota squad that gave up 216.7 yards per game through the air a year ago.
The Gophers showed last season they could get close to the quarterback. But close won’t cut it in 2012.
“Once you’re right there and you’re almost touching it, you obviously get more hungry,” Hageman said. “… We’re just excited and hungry just to prove that we can do better than we did last year.”
Minnesota won’t be able to bring all of its defensive linemen on the trip to Las Vegas for the season opener Aug. 30 against UNLV. The next few days could be important for determining which linemen will make the cut and which ones will stay home.
“Every day it’s somebody different. It’s like the stock market. You don’t know which one to buy right now,” Claeys said. “Nobody’s been eliminated yet from taking the trip, that’s for sure, because they’ve all done well enough. I just wish it would be more consistent.”