MINNEAPOLIS — No unit took a bigger step forward last season for the Gophers football team than the secondary.
In 2011, Minnesota’s pass defense was among the worst in the Big Ten. One year later, it was one of the best. The Gophers allowed just 186.6 yards per game through the air in 2012, the fourth-fewest among all teams in the conference. Part of that had to do with improvements along the defensive line allowing the Gophers to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but Minnesota’s cornerbacks and safeties progressed individually as well.
Heading into the 2013 season, though, Minnesota must figure out how to fill the void left behind by the graduation of senior cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire. Midway through spring practices, Gophers coach Jerry Kill doesn’t believe his secondary will miss a beat from last year.
“Our secondary, that part of it, that’s a strong part of our football team right now,” Kill said Thursday. “We’ve got some depth there. We’ve got a lot of ability there. I expect a lot out of them. I think they’re good. Certainly the two kids we lost were good, but we still expect to be good.”
Carter emerged last season as Minnesota’s best cornerback. He led the Gophers with four interceptions and 15 pass breakups and also added 49 tackles. Stoudermire was granted a medical redshirt and was Minnesota’s leading tackler as a fifth-year senior with 82 tackles in 13 games. He also returned kicks on special teams.
The Gophers’ opponents completed 57.2 percent of passes in 2012, which was the fifth-lowest in the Big Ten. Minnesota gave up 15 touchdowns through the air as opposed to 22 rushing touchdowns allowed.
“When you watch film from last year as far as the secondary goes, teams didn’t really beat us,” Vereen said. “We let them beat us; we beat ourselves. Eliminating those mental errors will show that we’re physically just as good as anybody else out there.”
While Carter and Stoudermire are gone, the Gophers feel they have plenty of depth in the secondary to help pass the torch from last year to this year. That includes safeties Brock Vereen and Cedric Thompson, safety-turned-cornerback Derrick Wells, and a host of other young cornerbacks that gained valuable experience a year ago. Sophomores Eric Murray and Damarius Travis both saw playing time as true freshmen last season, although Murray played primarily on special teams.
Murray has been getting reps with the first team defense this spring, although things can always change between now and fall camp. He appeared in all 13 games last season but only registered five tackles all season.
Murray’s coaches and teammates are expecting big things from the Milwaukee native this year.
“Eric is going to surprise a lot of people,” Vereen said. “Eric is going to get the opportunity to show people how good he is. By the end of the season, everybody’s going to know the name Eric Murray.”
Murray said he learned about different techniques from Carter and Stoudemire last year during his freshman season. Now that he’s gotten the hang of that part of the game, the 6-foot, 194-pound Murray believes he can be a physical presence in Minnesota’s secondary.
“You can be as athletic as you want but if you don’t have technique, you can’t really make plays inside of what you need to do,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to beat me off the line, so I’m going to be really physical off the line.”
There are several other names to keep an eye on in Minnesota’s secondary this spring and into the fall. That includes seniors Jeremy Baltazar and Martez Shabazz, sophomore Antonio Johnson and junior Marcus Jones, who changed positions from wide receiver to cornerback this offseason in order to give the Gophers more depth in the secondary.
It’s not just depth Minnesota’s secondary possesses, though. The Gophers believe there’s also talent among the cornerbacks and safeties.
“I think we can be as good as we were last year,” Murray said. “Last year the secondary was really talented. I think we’ve got enough talent to make up for the areas we’re going to miss in. If we play as a unit and as a secondary, we can be pretty good.”
Murray, who was a two-star recruit while at Riverside High School in Milwaukee, is looking forward to being a part of that talented secondary — possibly even as a starter.
“It’d mean a lot,” he said of the opportunity to start. “When I was coming out of high school I never even dreamed of playing D1 football, so that’d be a dream come true for me.”