This is the seventh in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team’s Aug. 1 start of practice.
Today’s position: Cornerbacks
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starters: Eric Murray (junior), Derrick Wells (senior)
Key backups: Jalen Myrick (sophomore), Briean Boddy-Calhoun (redshirt junior), Marcus Jones (senior)
The breakdown: Murray is the one mainstay returning from last year’s cornerback unit, as the 6-foot, 195-pound junior started all 13 games last year as a sophomore. He quickly developed into Minnesota’s best lockdown cornerback, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Murray finished the season with a team-high 10 pass break-ups, along with 52 tackles. Gophers fans will see Murray matched up with opposing teams’ top receivers in 2014.
Wells has bounced around between cornerback and safety during his Gophers career, and a shoulder injury kept him out of spring practices. But he should be healthy and ready to go when camp opens up this weekend. Wells started five games at cornerback last year and is likely the favorite to win the starting job opposite of Murray in the secondary.
Myrick is a name that Minnesota’s coaching staff has brought up numerous times, including several times this spring. The 5-foot-10 sophomore played in 11 games as a freshman, but most of that time came on special teams. Coaches love his athleticism and his instinct for a young player.
Boddy-Calhoun’s story has been one of perseverance. Just when he was playing what he felt was the best football of his career, the former junior college transfer suffered a year-ending knee injury in Minnesota’s second game of the 2013 season. After tearing his ACL, Boddy-Calhoun was granted a medical redshirt, meaning 2014 will be his redshirt junior season. He started both games at cornerback last year before the injury and was slowly getting mixed into action this spring. Boddy-Calhoun isn’t the only cornerback who has worked his way back from a knee injury. Jones — a converted wide receiver — did the same and should see action as a backup cornerback.
As a unit, Minnesota’s cornerbacks will need to increase their interception totals in order for the Gophers’ pass defense to take a step forward. Minnesota ranked ninth out of 12 Big Ten teams last year in total interceptions with 10, and it was a linebacker (Aaron Hill) who led the team in that category with two picks.
Best position battle: Murray appears a lock for one of the two starting cornerback jobs, but the other starting spot isn’t as certain. Wells has plenty of experience — more than Boddy-Calhoun and Myrick — but he is still working his way back from a shoulder injury. If for any reason that injury continues to linger, it could mean Wells’ reps as the starter could be limited. Boddy-Calhoun will need to show that he’s 100 percent recovered from his major knee injury (and the surgery that followed it) in order to have a chance to compete for a starting spot.
The dark horse in the battle for the second starting job will be Myrick. He’s the least experienced of the group in that mix, but a strong fall camp could vault him into the consideration for a spot at No. 1 on the depth chart.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Michigan, 2. Michigan State, 3. Northwestern
Wolverines cornerback Blake Countess is one of the Big Ten’s best, and he bounced back wonderfully from a torn ACL in 2012. He led Michigan with six interceptions in 2013, which were tied for the most in the conference. On top of that, the 5-foot-10 redshirt junior had 10 passes defended and added 46 tackles. Michigan’s defense was second in the Big Ten in interceptions, thanks in part to four from Raymon Taylor, and should be one of the best ball-hawking secondaries in the conference once again.
Michigan State’s defense continues to rank as one of, if not the best in the Big Ten. Though the Spartans lose stud cornerback Darqueze Dennard to the NFL, there’s plenty of depth with this year’s group. Leading the way is Trae Waynes, a redshirt junior who had three picks and 50 tackles last season playing opposite of Dennard. As a unit, MSU’s defense allowed a paltry 165.6 passing yards per game, easily the best mark in the Big Ten.
Northwestern will have plenty of experience at the cornerback position in 2014. Both starters from last year are back. Nick VanHoose started all 12 games as a sophomore last year and finished with a team-high eight pass breakups. Fellow cornerback Matt Harris started the last five games as a true freshman, along with returning kicks for the Wildcats
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys says: "It’s amazing how fast (Boddy-Calhoun has) come back. I’m the one who’s telling him to slow down right now because I don’t want something to happen that delays him. He’s a tough kind and strong. . . . He’s done a good job with the rehab. He’s a team leader. His positive attitude helps everybody on the team."