MINNEAPOLIS — Cedric Thompson can now yell at his teammates.
That wasn’t always the case for the Gophers senior, though. He admits it took him a while to come into his own as vocal leader on the defense. But last season, he learned from teammate Brock Vereen — now with the Chicago Bears — about how to be vocal on defense.
As Thompson transitions into the leadership role that Vereen once held, he’ll need to find his voice on the field.
"I didn’t used to be a really vocal person, but I broke out of my nutshell, I guess, to be a really vocal person," Thompson said after practice Wednesday. "I know there’s some people that I can yell at and scream at and they know I’m not being mean. They know I see a lot in them. So now I’m more of a vocal guy. I know who to yell at, who to sit down beside and just talk with. I think that’s one of my strengths as a leader."
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys applauded many of the seniors on the defense and their ability to get after the younger guys, but they’ve done so in the right way. That took some time for Thompson to figure out exactly how to yell while still being supportive and motivating.
Part of that is that Thompson has high expectations for this defense that has continued to improve each year under head coach Jerry Kill and Claeys’ tutelage. The secondary is expected to be one of the best in the Big Ten, so Thompson is doing his part to keep everyone in line.
"I just feel like you can be nice to a guy, but if somebody’s not acting right and it takes for you to get on them, you should do it," Thompson said. "Everybody handles everything different. Some people you can’t yell at because they can’t handle it. . . . I can be grumpy. I can be mean sometimes. But if I’m mean to that guy, he knows I’m not being mean. I’m just being hard on him because I see a lot in him."
Thompson says he’s kept in touch with Vereen, and the two have swapped text messages as continue to grind in camp to prepare for their respective seasons. Vereen has a chance to break camp with Chicago as one of the team’s starting safeties, something that inspires confidence among Minnesota’s secondary.
"It definitely motivates us, because Brock, everything he did, he did right," Thompson said. "He’s a perfect example of do your job and be consistent and be everything that you can be and you can get to where you want to be. That’s what really motivates us."
Defensive line settling into place: Over the weekend, Kill announced that redshirt senior Harold Legania has switched from defensive tackle to offensive line. Playing time was hard to come by for Legania, who found himself on the outside looking in at a crowded and talented offensive line. He appeared in just three games as a junior last year and was stuck behind tackles Cameron Botticelli and Scott Ekpe, and freshman Steven Richardson has also emerged as a force at the tackle spot.
It remains to be seen if or when Legania will play much on the offensive line, but the Gophers coaching staff believes it gives the senior the best chance contribute in 2014.
"The offensive line’s got some kids banged up, so that’s his best opportunity to get on the field in the earliest situation," Claeys said Wednesday. "That’s why that was done. I think it’s a good move for both sides."
Meanwhile, Richardson continues to receive praise from the coaching staff and his fellow defensive linemen. A native of Chicago, the 6-foot, 291-pound Richardson has impressed in camp and may have an opportunity to play right away as a true freshman.
"Steve Richardson’s a guy that I admired once he got here because he didn’t say much. He listened a lot," Botticelli said. "He did what you told him, just from a coaching perspective in our captain’s practices. I’ve been able to watch him grow into a player who potentially could contribute this fall. That’s been exciting."
Another freshman to watch: While Richardson may have the best chance of any true freshman to play in 2014, there’s another name that continues to be mentioned by the coaching staff. That would be cornerback Craig James, an Edwardsville, Ill., native who came to Minnesota as a three-star recruit.
The Gophers have a decent amount of experience in the secondary, especially at cornerback with starters Eric Murray and Derrick Wells. But James could find his way onto the field right away, too, after a strong camp.
"Some kids go into a shell a little bit and don’t compete as hard until they get comfortable. Other kids act like they belong, and Craig is one of those who acts like he belongs at this level," Claeys said. "It’s never stunned him to go out there and say, ‘Hey, you’re in there with the (first team).’ . . . He has that mentality that he’s ready to compete at this level right now, and he comes in with the strength and the speed to do it."