Gophers positional preview: Safeties
JUL 29, 2014 12:15p ET
This is the eighth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team's Aug. 1 start of practice.
Today's position: Safety
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Projected starters: Cedric Thompson (senior), Antonio Johnson (junior)
Key backups: Damarius Travis (junior), Grayson Levine (senior), Daletavious McGhee (redshirt freshman)
The breakdown: The safety position is one of two spots where Minnesota has to fill a void left by a player who was taken in the NFL Draft. Brock Vereen will now spend his Sundays playing for the Chicago Bears after evolving into a team leader with the Gophers over the past few seasons. Luckily for Minnesota, it has some veterans ready to step up and accept the challenge.
Leading the way as the next leader is Thompson, who started 11 games at safety as a junior last year. He also made eight starts as a sophomore and has appeared in a total of 33 games since arriving on campus from Calipatria, Calif. Thompson's 79 tackles in 2013 were the most on the team. The Gophers are hoping he can fill Vereen's shoes, not only in production but in regards to leadership in the secondary as well.
Playing alongside Thompson will be Johnson, who started six of Minnesota's 13 games last year when Vereen transitioned from safety to cornerback out of necessity in the second half of the season. Johnson put up impressive numbers as a sophomore, recording 69 tackles (fourth on the team) while intercepting one pass and forcing a fumble. Johnson showcased his versatility and athleticism by also returning a handful of kicks for the Gophers, including a 53-yard return.
Travis made two starts at safety as a sophomore last year (against Western Illinois and Northwestern) and should fight for playing time as one of the top backups. Levine has seen the field since his freshman year but has yet to start a game. McGhee is unproven, redshirting last year during his first season on campus, but coaches love his potential.
Best position battle: Thompson and Johnson appear to be locked in as the two starters, but the No. 3 safety after those two is far from settled. Travis would appear to have the upper hand as the next guy in line, should either starter falter or suffer an injury, as was the case last year when he started two games. While Levine has played in 25 games over the course of three seasons, his minutes were mostly limited. McGhee could turn some heads in fall camp and could potentially see playing time as a redshirt freshman.
Spartans senior Kurtis Drummond could wind up as one of the best safeties in the Big Ten this year. His 91 tackles and four interceptions earned him a first-team All-Big Ten selection. Teammate RJ Williamson started only two games as a sophomore last season but will likely start opposite Drummond.
As a junior last year, Northwestern's Ibraheim Campbell finished with four interceptions, tied for third in the Big Ten. He also recorded 74 tackles and defended nine passes. Traveon Henry made 10 starts a year ago before missing the last two games with injury. This duo returns plenty of experience to the Wildcats' secondary.
Big Ten newcomer Maryland boasts a rather formidable safety tandem in juniors Anthony Nixon and Sean Davis. Nixon made 11 starts in 2013, while Davis led the Terps with 102 tackles -- a number that would have led the Big Ten last year.
Head coach Jerry Kill says: "I think Cedric came in as a freshman and you could tell he was going to be a very, very good player. And to be a leader you have to be a good football player. And as his maturity grew in our program and each year, I think that he has improved in that area, a great communicator."
Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter